A very serious discussion about wine advertising

Wine advertising is lacking in humour, asks Robert Joseph. He thinks it’s time that marketers lightened up.

A still from the Second Cheapest Wine sketch by College Humor
A still from the Second Cheapest Wine sketch by College Humor

“I’m having fruit salad for dinner. Well, it’s mostly grapes actually. OK all grapes. Fermented grapes. I’m having wine for dinner.” 

“The doctor said I need to start drinking more wine.
Also, I’m calling myself ‘the doctor’ now”.

“Our family loves wine
We’ve even got wine coloured carpet
It used to be beige”

Did you laugh? Is there at least a faint shadow of a smile on your face? 

Like beauty, individual appreciation of humour is famously subjective. Personally, I remain stony faced whenever I’m faced with the three jokes at the beginning of this piece.

All three are, however, typical of the kind of humour the wine world seems to favour. The first two were shared widely on social media, while the third comes from a YouTube clip by James Dowdeswell, ‘the wine comedian’.

There’s also a lot of wine-based humour on YouTube, some of it by people like Ellen Degeneris and Michael McIntyre, whose livelihood depends on their being funny, and some, like College Humor’s Second Cheapest Wine that benefit from high production values. They’ve generally clocked up more than half a million views and I’ve included some of these clips in presentations I’ve given to the wine industry, and invariably been rewarded by laughter from almost everyone in the room. 

And that’s quite interesting because they all share two things in common. The first is they are made by people from outside the industry. The second is that they are laughing at – not with – us. Their jokes depend on the audience agreeing that we, by which I mean wine producers, salespeople and sommeliers, are out to confuse and quite possibly cheat ordinary mortals with the complexity of our language and behaviour. Or what McIntyre, in his brilliant dissection of the ordeal most people endure when having to choose a wine in restaurant, calls the “bullshit production” of wine.

One of the best examples of the wine industry laughing at its own bullshit that I’ve come across was a 2012 effort by Paso Robles using the local actor (and star of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), Casey Briggs as ‘Paso Man’. “Do I smell grass, charcoal, church bingo?” he asks after sniffing a white wine? “No!” he continues, “I smell freedom.” 

As Jennifer Porter, executive director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance told her local newspaper, she wanted a campaign that stood apart from the usually staid way the wine industry promotes its products. The brief was for something that was “funny, informative and ironic,” that would promote the region as “Napa Valley’s cuter, more approachable cousin.”

I can’t imagine anyone being offended by Paso Man, which is more than can be said for Rodriguez Diaz Perez Borges Y Cabron Y Pintxos de Martinez, the absurdly-named patriarch star of this 2013 TV advertisement for the Vallformosa sparkling wine brand. The high-budget clip, which includes nudity and relies for its effect on references to financial avarice and the use of an Anglo Saxon four-letter-word, is one of the curiosities of the advertising world. It was produced by a Belgian agency for exclusive use in Belgium, apparently the world’s best market for Cava. I think it’s rather wonderful, but I’m sure others will differ.

But in either case, it’s an exception to Jennifer Porter’s ‘staid’ rule. Brewers have always felt relaxed about using fairly basic humour, as a trawl through the ‘funny beer commercials’ on YouTube reveals. But a similar search for ‘funny wine commercials’ offers thin pickings. There was this self-mocking one from Georgia, an expensive, bizarre (and, definitely offensive-for-many effort from Bovin in Macedonia) and this sophisticated effort from Brokenwood in Australia which was evidently wrongly categorised. 

While I watched the beautiful images of cellars, vineyards and listened to the poetically elegiac script and waited in vain for a clever, funny twist I was irresistibly reminded of the brilliant Aviation gin ad which pokes fun at the many of the tropes associated with natural and clean wine and food. 

I cannot claim to have carried out exhaustive research into the subject, but from what I’ve found, far too high a proportion ‘wine humour’ produced from within the industry is either lame or relies on some kind of reference to sex that is bound to offend someone. Can’t we do better?

People buy from people they like. And most of us like being given excuses to laugh, especially at times like this. So, if you get offended by the Vallformosa ad, see what you can come up with. It may not take much. I still smile at the words ‘Open other end’ that Frog’s Leap winery printed at the bottom of its back labels. But I’m sure you could do better.

Robert Joseph




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