My favorite Benton & Bowles client was Heublein, which was one of the biggest distillers in the US. Their best-known brand was Smirnoff vodka, but they had dozens of others, from high-end imports to nasty, low-proof, canned cocktails aimed at teenagers who took coolers of the stuff to the beach so they could get their girlfriends shit faced and have their evil way with them.
I ended up on the account by default because the agency had run out of creative sacrificial lambs to work with the world’s worst client, Jack Martin, Heublein’s marketing director. This was a guy who had the power of life and death over the agency.
I’ve had the misfortune to work with way too many of these wankers over the years, but Jack was an absolute fucking douchenozzle. If he didn’t like an ad, he would spit on it, rip it to pieces, throw it on the floor and jump on it. Rumor has it he once murdered an ad by stabbing it to death with the German SS dagger he kept on his desk. In desperation, the agency decided to throw me at the problem, because apparently Jack’s wife was English. They hoped he might go easy on me if I laid on the Brit-Chat.
I was introduced to Jack and he must have taken a shine to me, because when the suits invited him to lunch, he insisted I be included. So, we descended on 21, one of New York’s landmark eateries. Now, when I said Jack had a reputation for being a pig, it wasn’t just for the way he abused the agency. In actual fact, Jack looked remarkably porcine. He was overweight, had a big red face with tiny eyes, and a snout-like nose.
The lunch was unbelievable. He ordered everything on the menu, from lobster to caviar, whilst shamelessly selecting the most expensive wines on the list, which was fine by me; particularly as the agency suits were picking up the tab.
Throughout the meal, Jack never stopped talking. The problem was that he never stopped eating either. This meant the food sprayed in all directions, resulting in the account people desperately trying to protect their Brooks Brothers without making their frenzied flapping of napkins too obvious. None of this bothered me, as I was helping Jack consume the Château Lafite at an alarming rate, much to the consternation of the food spattered suits!
It was decided my first effort for Heublein would be to solve the secondary and tertiary brand vodka problem.
You should understand that this was not some obscure mathematical theorem from MIT. What it meant was that, besides Smirnoff, the company also produced six other brands of the same basic, nothing-gets-you-pissed-quicker spirit. It’s a little appreciated fact that by Federal law all vodkas, with the exception of the flavored ones, are exactly the same. They’re all are made with grain neutral spirits diluted with water. The common misperception that this fiery brew is made from potatoes by Russian peasants is a myth the liquor trade has shamelessly nurtured.
So: if you fancy a vodka-based highball, don’t be a schmuck and ask for “Stoli and Grape” or “Sky and Cranberry.” Ask for the well vodka. It’s exactly the same and a damn sight cheaper. However, if you’re trying to impress the blonde art director with the big knockers, then go for the Nunsvasser. It might help you achieve your nasty end.
So, now I’m the Heublein creative and have to come up with a campaign for one of their minor brands, Relska Vodka. The problem is, even though the stuff inside the Relska bottle is exactly the same as the stuff inside the Smirnoff bottle and sells for sixty per cent less, we can’t say “it gets you just as fucked up, but for a lot less money” because then they’d stop buying the expensive stuff.
So, naturally, I decided to say absolutely nothing about the product. Instead, I decided to say something about the people who drink the product. This is the fallback position ad hacks have always used when they are totally at a loss. It allows you to show glamorous people posed by your car, eating your bean dip, drinking your booze, etc., without making a sensible statement. The dumbest way to do this is to sign up a celebrity.
This often backfires when the star basketball player you have on a multi-million dollar contract gets accused of raping hotel maids. Or, the world’s greatest golfer you signed up three years ago hasn’t won a single tournament since. Or, even worse, was discovered to have a tendency to fuck anything that moves. Better to stick to far less expensive, anonymous models.
In the case of Relska, I chose some of the most glamorous blonde New York models of the sixties. In a series of ads they were shot sitting at a white table, against a white background, dressed all in white. On the table was a bottle and martini glass. The only color was the red and gold of the Relska label, the green olive in the martini, and the color of the girls’ eyes.
In one memorable shot, a Swedish model’s eyes were a startling violet! Her name was Camilla Sparv (left), and she later went on to star in Robert Redford’s Downhill Racer. Unfortunately, her acting skills hardly matched up to her looks, and she soon disappeared.
Jack loved the visual aspect of the ads, but he loved the headline: “I’d really, rather Relska.” He thought it was terribly British (it was the “really” bit that did it). And because the overall monochromatic effect served to make the label punch out of the background, the fucking product was the hero!
As a reward, I was invited to dinner at Jack’s house to meet his English wife. They lived in a posh part of Connecticut in a typical upper-middle-class home. You can imagine my surprise upon entering to find that everything in the house was covered in plastic! And I mean everything. Carpets, chairs, tables, lampshades, probably even the bed sheets and pillows. Jack’s wife seemed very nice, but rather quiet, leaving most of the talking to Jack. You can imagine my dismay to discover when we sat down for dinner that the tablecloth had a plastic sheet over it. Fortunately, the china and silverware were made of actual china and silver.
Pre-dinner cocktails had consisted of Heublein’s premium brands, so I was expecting some rather impressive wines with the dinner. My dismay only increased as I watched Jack unscrew the top from a gallon jug of Gallo’s finest! (This from a guy who would think nothing of ordering a four hundred-dollar claret, obviously on the agencies tab).
I wish I could say the quality of Mrs. Martin’s cooking made up for the choice of wine. It didn’t. To complete a memorable evening, it turned out Jack’s wife made more noise and sprayed more food around whilst eating than Jack did! I began to wish that I was covered in plastic as well.