Product placements: straight, no chaser.

Rogert Ebert wonders why people in movies nowadays swill straight booze. Answer: that’s the best drink product placers’ money can buy.

Having just seen the movie Young Adult (perhaps better described as a virtuoso Charlize Theron acting class pretending to be a movie) I’ve looked up some reviews and found this one by Roger Ebert.  It’s a good review and rightly says that people will fail to get the film if they don’t realize it’s about alcoholism—and, as David Haglund has pointed out in Slate, mental illness, though as his commenters have pointed out, it’s hard to disentangle the cause and effect between that and advanced alcoholism.

In the course of that review, though, Ebert makes an observation that frankly seems pretty naïve:

She [Mavis Gary, Theron’s character] drinks a lot of bourbon neat. I’ve noticed a trend in recent movies: Few characters have mixed drinks anymore. It’s always one or two fingers, or four or five, of straight booze in a glass.

Correction: the character does not drink a lot of “bourbon” neat. She drinks a lot of Maker’s Mark neat. She orders it by name at least once, and bottles of the stuff are clearly visible in other scenes where she doesn’t name it. The only other bourbon she ever drinks is, tellingly, a lovingly home-made variety that doesn’t actually exist and doesn’t threaten Maker’s brand value—may even enhance it by comparison. What’s going on isn’t art. It’s product placement. I admit, and welcome, that the product placement is far less obvious, and therefore probably more effective, in Young Adult than it was in the (otherwise fantastic) movie The Business of Strangers, which might as well have been titled The Dewarsâ„¢ Business of Strangers. But basically, Theron drinks her Maker’s Mark straight to make the brand she orders more memorable. It would also undercut the brand value of an expensive whiskey to suggest that people might want to drink it mixed: I’ve never heard of anybody ordering a whiskey sour with Baker’s in it, and I pity anyone who would waste good Baker’s by doing so.

There’s of course been lots of agitation against cigarette product placement in films, and it’s agitation I mostly welcome—though health is not the only good thing in the world, and people should realize that in the case of low-budget indies the placement is sometimes all that makes a life-altering film possible. (No Marisa Tomei obtrusively interrupting a crucial scene to sell a guy “Marlboro Reds,” no In the Bedroom. And yes, if Stan Glantz is reading this he should feel free to pummel me, politely I hope, in comments.) In the current case, I think the objection is less strong. One could credibly say that movies make cigarettes seem both more popular and more glamorous than they would otherwise be. Young Adult hardly makes Maker’s Mark seem glamorous. It makes it seem the road to ruining your life.

In fact, that’s what makes me scratch my head. Perhaps because product placement works through repetition, the placement of liquor typically takes the form of showing it being drunk by people who drink way too much of it. Ebert notes that Mavis must basically be drunk in every scene, though she doesn’t always show it to the same degree. The amount that Stockard Channing swills (the word is deliberate: we’re talking about Dewar’s) in The Business of Strangers puts her in pretty much the same category. When she’s not working out early in the morning, she comes across, and is intended to come across, as someone looking to an amber-colored liquid to save her from a job and a life she can’t stand.

So why would liquor companies pay for this? Do they really think that the kind of educated, affluent people likely to form the audience for these movies will be so ignorant of liquor that their brand will benefit from the mere mention of its name, in spite of the negative associations it carries? (Is there anyone who might be likely to try Maker’s Mark who hasn’t already heard of it ad nauseam?) Is the main audience for these placements in fact alcoholics who are expected to miss the artistic point of the movie, i.e. who after watching the film won’t be turned off liquor but might be induced to try a new tipple? Or are the product placers just too stupid to see that the movies paint their product in an unflattering light—or, perhaps most likely, too culturally dead to even watch a challenging film all the way through? Finally, am I in fact naïve to think that there are lots of people like me, who enjoy fine whiskeys occasionally and in moderation but would recoil at the thought of drinking several glasses’ full? For once in my life I’m baffled (though sober). Please feel free to enlighten me in comments.


Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

26 thoughts on “Product placements: straight, no chaser.”

  1. Andrew, tell me this — what is it that makes Maker’s Mark different from all other bourbons?

    Perhaps you know, or perhaps not. But my point is that even “educated, affluent people” like you and me might not know that, or might not even be familiar with the subtle difference in taste caused by the difference in the mash. And yes, they might be influenced to try it, just because they saw it in a movie, just as I was, years ago, when Paul Newman ordered Bushmills by name in The Verdict. Sure, Jamesons was much more prevalent in bars in the U.S., but after I saw the film, I thought “hey, I ought to give that Bushmills a try.” And I never went back to Jamesons.

    BTW, another thought on that subject — it pleases me to see somebody drinking a reasonably good whiskey (or whisky) without mixing it with some goopy syrup like Coke or ginger ale, even if the brand isn’t one of my own.

    And finally — no, it’s not naive to think that there are plenty of people like us who enjoy our fine whiskey/whisky in moderation, but we have to recognize that there are lots of others (especially those a generation younger than ourselves, like my son) who enjoy fine whiskey/whisky in much larger quantities. Ah, to be young again, knowing what I know now…

    1. Since Andrew is not responding, I’ll take a couple of cracks. First, on Bushmills. Although Jameson dominates globally, Bushmill’s was the top selling Irish Whiskey in metro Boston and likely the entire Northeast (far more of it is sold in Boston than in surrounding states combined). Jameson has had a very effective campaign over the last several years to take over that spot even in Boston, but, in the 1980s, Bushmill’s was king.

      Maker’s Mark is a cheap bourbon that makes pretty good mint juleps (and, yes, grain selection is important–even if rye is not a bourbon grain, contrary to what the other Aardvark suggests). Why anyone would drink that rocket fuel straight is beyond me. Baker’s is OK in its own right, but it pales next to Hancock and, my favorite, McKenna, which may be hard to find. Ultimately, it’s taster’s choice, but I’ve always recommended McKenna to friends and none of them have been disappointed.

      1. Maker’s Mark is cheap? Perhaps compared to small batch premium bourbon brands, but where I live it is comparable to mid-market brands like Wild Turkey 101 and Jack Daniel’s Black Label. Higher priced than Jim Beam, the most popular bourbon brand, from what I understand.

        But then again, I have been bone dry for about 15 months, so my information may not be current.

        1. The Maker’s 43 is also very good.

          … I am starting to sound like I work for the Beam conglomerate (they bought Maker’s! sad day), so maybe I should mention that I drink mostly Scotch.

          I don’t think I’ve had Baker’s (I was mentally confusing it with Basil Hayden’s, which I find a little limp), so I will check it out.

      2. even if rye is not a bourbon grain, contrary to what the other Aardvark suggests
        While bourbon mash must consist primarily of corn, other grains are invariably used to round out the bill. Wikipedia disagrees with you about the rye. I can’t be bothered to find the original source of my information right now, but IIRC I got it from the Maker’s Mark web site.

  2. I personally like this kind of subtle product placement in movies, it makes it more realistic.

  3. Bill Clinton sipped Diet Coke during his grand jury testimony which was pretty good product placement.

  4. Also, I think it’s probably more of a recurring motif in the films of the writer, Diablo Cody. Makers Mark is also referenced in her film Juno. Coincidentally, or not, Sam Raimi, who hired her to help on a rewrite of the Evil Dead reboot, regularly features bottles of Makers Mark in his films.

  5. Do they really think that the kind of educated, affluent people likely to form the audience for these movies will be so ignorant of liquor that their brand will benefit from the mere mention of its name, in spite of the negative associations it carries?

    You don’t really think marketers are successful because they’ve figured out how to leverage our rational capacities do you? Marketing is the science of tickling the reptilian vestige of our brains.

  6. I have noticed (and I have a real life experience in mind) that many “high end” somewhat functioning alcoholics (before hitting bottom) are very particular about such things as the brand of liquor they drink, and how their favorite drink is made. Maybe it has something to do with pretending that you really appreciate the finer qualities of the liquor you are drinking (not that you HAVE to drink)? A professional acquaintance routinely ordered Maker’s Mark and had highly specific instructions for how she wanted it served. Her career later imploded after a few out of control episodes in which too much Maker’s Mark figured prominently. Anyway, without pretending to know the intent of the maker of Maker’s Mark, but having the character ask for it by name also seems like a knowingly accurate sociological detail of alcoholics of her demographic and educational class.

    1. Interesting! A very smart response, and my favorite comment so far (not to denigrate the others).

      Still, even if the character might, as a matter of sociological reality, prefer *some* whiskey, I bet that which one that would be was decided by product placement. If they’d bid more, Knob Creek could have become the whiskey that Mavis couldn’t do without.

      On the other hand, based on ack ack ack’s comment, maybe the writer just thinks Maker’s Mark is the world’s greatest whiskey (if so, sharing that belief with Anderson below). That’s not my taste–not that there’s anything wrong with Maker’s Mark, but I think Baker’s is much better. But I’m hardly enough of a bourbon expert to be able to defend that preference.

  7. Uh, sorry: when *I* exclusively drink Maker’s Mark, it’s not product placement; it’s that MM is my favorite bourbon. It’s the favorite bourbon of a lot of people. Not all of whom are alcoholics, for that matter (tho Barbara’s comment rings true).

    Is there any evidence that this was actually a paid product placement?

    1. It’s their (and likely yours) favorite bourbon precisely because of successful advertising that includes subtle product placement such as this one. It latches onto the recognition of something–in this case, Maker’s Mark–and ignorance of the rest (in this case, better bourbons). There is no need for “evidence” of product placement–no brand appears in a major Hollywood production without a placement fee and a permission to use the name. Or do you think all those laptops used in blockbusters just happen to be Apples, Dells and Sonys because they are most popular?

      1. “It latches onto the recognition of something–in this case, Maker’s Mark–and ignorance of the rest (in this case, better bourbons).”

        I have drunk quite a few “better” bourbons than MM and failed to perceive why they are better (as opposed to more expensive). Perhaps you, dear Fox, are the victim of marketing, not I?

      2. (and likely yours) favorite bourbon precisely because of successful advertising that includes subtle product placement such as this one

        Has anyone ever told you that comments like this are really obnoxious?

        Are you really trying to tell us that all of our tastes are formed by advertising? How then do you explain my liking for malodorous Islay malt whisky, which I cannot recall ever having seen advertised (or “product placed”) anywhere, ever? Are you seriously suggesting that I’m hallucinating my recollection of having noticed the stuff on a liquor store shelf, thinking “that looks interesting,” taking home a bottle, and being intrigued enough by the taste to buy another?

  8. In defense of mixed drinks, a well made old fashioned or Manhattan cocktail will live or die on the quality of its ingredients. High quality bourbon isn’t wasted if it’s used in a drink that brings out its best properties.

    I wouldn’t consider a whiskey sour to be one of those drinks, though (lemon masks the flavor of alcohol, and just about everything else as well). And if you’re going to just pour cola on it then MM is certainly TOO nice.

    1. s/old fashioned or Manhattan//

      “Well-made cocktail” is sufficient here. The meaning of the noun should be understood as excluding concoctions that are dilute enough to mask the virtues of the spirits used in their preparation.

  9. Also, I have to say that this kind of product placement is WAY better for bourbon as a whole than the previous status quo, where if a film was going to mention a whiskey by name, it was going to be Jack Daniels. I’ve known so many people who think they hate whiskey because all they ever tried was Jack Daniels (or cheap bottom shelf crap at a college party).

    The relative quality of Maker’s Mark versus other bourbons is personal opinion, but it’s a crying shame when so many people who consume alcoholic beverages anyway think they just don’t like whiskey, when, no, they don’t like Jack Daniels.

    1. Jack Daniels is bourbon from which has been removed all that which makes bourbon interesting. No, really: they filter out the “impurities.”

      It’s easier for neophytes to drink, hence its popularity with people who are too young to be drinking anyway.

  10. What’s so hard to understand? Alcoholics are a target market for booze makers because they buy A LOT of alcohol. Maker’s Mark just wants to make some of them buy their brand instead of whatever else they were buying.

  11. Coincidentally, we watched The Hustler over the weekend. 1961 predates the product placement era. Halfway through their first pool game, Fats calls for White Tavern Whiskey, a glass and ice. Fast Eddie Felsen calls for a bottle JTS Brown. Just the bottle. Felsen proceeds to get too drunk to play well, while Fats doesn’t show any signs of inebriation and wins. As it turns out, JTS Brown is a real brand and a cheap one at that, establishing Felsen’s lack of character. White Tavern wasn’t a real brand name and we are left to infer that Fats was drinking brown water and staying sober which, knowing what we know now about Jackie Gleason, had to have been a fine bit of acting.

  12. Actually, much of the product placement in this film was in the script and when asked about it after a screening, Reitman (the director) said they were not paid for any of it. He just likes to use real products most of the time.

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