Booze advertising keeps dancing on the dark side. Check out the recent commercial campaign for ThreeOlives Vodka — an ad so full of urban fantasy tropes that at first I thought it was going to be a trailer for a remake of Angel or something.
The vid is high on gloss and romantic fluff, spending its $10-15 million dollar budget so that the product reflects elite “class,” but it is at the same time using mass culture tropes to sell its wares. What makes it winsome is the way it is structured, presenting the advert as a narrative music video for Masha, remaking Warron Zevon’s classic rock standard, “Werewolves of London.” The cover version is good and you can currently download it free on the ThreeOlives website.
My view on this video is that it is not only “uncanny” because of the use of supernatural creatures — the werewolf is a “double” (a monstrous alter-ego) for the male lead in the ad — but also because it is presented as a remake. The first time you hear the song it might creep up on you the same way the protagonist of the video creeps on his female “victims.” You might feel it is strangely familiar (“where have I heard this before?”) until you recognize the lyrics. The structure of all remakes are inherently contingent on appeals to nostalgia, but it also relies on the structure of the uncanny — the “return of the repressed” — where past desires once considered mastered return with a potency so strong that they feel like they are acting “on their own accord” as if by magic or supernatural agency. The past “comes back to life” in a remake — a text is “resurrected.”
Advertising frequently re-injects old products and even outdated media campaigns with a renewal that is laced with supernatural references. One of the key components of my running argument about the “popular” uncanny is that media technology is often supernaturalized when it delivers its unsettling messages, often obscuring or brushing aside the “surmounted” contradictions or ideologies of the past that it displays, while privileging media’s “magic” to spellbind us. There is often (not always) pleasure mixed in with a strange unsettling feeling akin to deja vu — a sense that we have “been here before” — which often also signals that we’re still “there” and that our culture has not progressed as much as we’d like to believe.
When AdWeek featured this spot as their “Ad of the Day,” they spoke to some of the ideological implications at play here:
Greg Smith, CCO at VIA, says the work is designed to take “the typical Three Olives Vodka drinker to the extreme, creating a protagonist whose polished exterior belies the beast within.”
Of course, we can’t take that notion, or the campaign’s story line, too literally. If we did, it would mean our classy canine cruiser plans to ply unsuspecting women with vodka and then tear them limb from limb. (That’s what werewolves do. Along with shedding all over the sofa.) Even seeing the wolf as a metaphor, the ads come a little close to objectifying women as prey. — David Gianastasio, AdWeek
If you don’t “see a wolf as a metaphor,” I don’t know what you think you are seeing.
But my point is that we have been here before. The pop culture references are numerous. The history of horror films is summoned in the video — films that the song “Werewolves of London” ITSELF referenced in its lyrics, here recapitulated all over again, and the video also seems to be draw from many “sexy” urban fantasy tropes that are so familiar to us now that we don’t need a narrative at all, just a song and a flash of fangs, to indicate what is happening in this video. It even reaches back the fairy tales of yore that superceded these films — playing off the girl/wolf power play that happens in Little Red Riding Hood (here framed as a Black Riding Hood, in the singer’s costume). So if the ad objectifies women as prey, it also in its conclusion suggests that women can tame the beast, or even best him, and that she is in control of him all along. This, of course, objectifies man as a sort of animal as well. But what’s being sold here is not power or gender identity so much as the release of libido via alcohol. A relinquishing of control to the commodity. This magic elixer brings out “the dark side,” the repressed desires of the unconscious, as a monstrous alter ego. The vodka is like Dr. Jekyll’s potion.
This sort of messaging is part of a long history of advertising that makes use of supernatural narrative and tropes of the uncanny to pitch a product. Lots of booze is occult in its appeal, but as horror goes mainstream, the more we get ads like these for products ranging from “Voodoo Ale” and “Magic Hat” craft beer to Crystal Skull Vodka.
It’s not so surprising. They’re called “spirits,” after all.