Why Southern Comfort from Wieden+Kennedy New York is our first Modern Classic

This is ostensibly the first of a series on Modern Classics. The first challenge is to decide what constitutes Modern. Should it be from the late 90s when D&AD first introduced digital awards, and Cannes introduced the Titanium Award?

Should it, for convenience, be from 2000? That would involve many examples of work already praised and deconstructed such as Guinness ‘Surfer’, Honda ‘Grrr’, and Sony ‘Balls’ among others. So, also for convenience, it might as well start now, the present arguably as modern as you can get, though always changing.

The next question is to agree what defines a ‘classic’. If we are working from the present, then the definition of something good that passes the test of time does not apply except as a type of forecasting. We could argue that the famous ads mentioned above have passed some test of time, and may then be seen as Modern and Classic. I have not, I confess, been hit by anything I’ve seen recently in the same way that I was when I first saw, say, Tango ‘Orange man’ or any of the three already mentioned.

I am impressed with Dove’s digital campaign to change negative image banner ads, and that along with its Evolution spot (which started as a viral) may well be looked back on as a new way of doing things. I may have missed stuff but the only thing that stands out for me at the moment is the Southern Comfort TV ad, for a number of reasons.

The first is that Southern Comfort and I have a history. In a previous life, I was the account man responsible for the first ever ad in the UK after much debate about whether such a rock n’ roll drink needed or should be advertised at all.

I remember sitting in the boardroom at BMP with the client – a delightful man but whose seniority of age was partly responsible for my growing a moustache and smoking small Wintermans cigars (I blush to recall). The ad was late. Chris Wilkins was finishing it off as we waited, and the client ventured that he was expecting a single page shot of the bottle and a witty line. “Not necessarily,” I replied, knowing that I was about to present a double page spread with 1000 words of copy.

Chris had promised to take me to the restaurant of my choice if nothing was changed. As the Gavroche was closed at the time, we went to the sister restaurant in the City, and Chris being the generous and magnanimous man he is, extended the invitation to his art director, Graham Rose, and our respective girlfriends. All of whom happened to work at BMP at the time, but all of whom also happened to be breaking up with us, for one reason or another. A memorable disaster.

The next link was through Tony Kaye who had shot something like 14 hours of rushes for the ‘Day in the Life’ McDonald’s ad we did. His next shoot was for Southern Comfort and when I next saw him he proudly told me the McDonald’s record was beaten by Southern Comfort with, I think, something over 20 hours of footage.

Since then Southern Comfort has milked (if that is the correct word – bourboned?) its provenance. The last thing I’m aware of before the present ad – ‘Whatever’s Comfortable’ – is a New Orleans street car. Well they seem to have done ‘southern’ and switched to ‘comfort’. That seems to be the obvious strategy or positioning.

But the ad itself is not obvious, and stands out as a result. Given the music I imagine the target is still younger male drinkers even though the character is older, wearing speedos and not obviously going to the gym every day. But that is the point. It stands out because it is different, and confident of its difference. Whether you like the BBH instruction to zig if others zag (or vice versa) or Jean-Marie Dru’s Disruption, you do not need to shout or to use the latest technique.

The idea that this is the drink for people who are comfortable with themselves is, I think, good emotional territory that comes out of a less conformist culture. It is in its way both a demo and a testimonial of sorts. There are touches that add to its memorability – the dog and the little shoulder drop of hello to the passing girls.

Modern? Yes, both because it is on now but also because of its attitude. A classic? I’m not so sure but when in future people wonder what was going on in 2012/13 this may be one thing that pops up.

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