Walking Advertisements: The Liquor Biz Brands Humans

Every year the spirits industry spends millions of dollars to gain brand loyalty on both sides of the bar. Leslie Pariseau explores the implications of extreme booze branding.

In the back of a dingy dive bar in New York’s Chinatown on a slushy January evening a red-lipped girl holds a clipboard with a few pages of crinkled notebook paper. “We’re on number 38,” she calls back into a room behind her where three tattoo artists are bent over various planes of naked skin. In front of the clipboard-bearer is a line of New Yorkers waiting to take off their shirts and roll up their sleeves for an identical tattoo, free of charge.

This is the 103rd birthday of the early 20th-century tattoo artist, Sailor Jerry, thrown by the spiced rum brand of the same name. In celebration, 103 lucky attendees will have a chance to get a tattoo of one of the symbols that appears in his portfolio of flash designs.

These are the heights that the liquor marketing game has reached: literally branding human beings.

Every year the spirits industry spends millions of dollars to gain brand loyalty on both sides of the bar, whether through sponsored happy hours or wining and dining bartenders. This particular event is mostly consumer-based, and each of the 103 have been told that necks, backs and arms are fair game. The tattoo? A swallow. In sailing, the swallow signifies that a sailor had traveled a certain number of miles, but for this crowd of New Yorkers—most of whom appear to be under the age of 30—it means anything they want it to mean. Including being branded by a booze company.

Somehow blatant schilling has become so embedded in the spirits industry that it’s accepted as a legitimate practice, and people continue to accept the infiltration of messaging and condone its extremities.

Every industry and every brand has its own particular methods of marketing. The wine world sends sommeliers and writers to France and Australia for vineyard tours, tastings and cultural outings. The food world expands its reach with the ever-rotating myriad of cooking challenge TV shows. But the booze world takes marketing experiences to the next, often questionable, level. There are small, intimate events where women are invited out for pedicures and cocktails, or parties where an actual cow is brought in to be milked for hyper-fresh cream cocktails. There are brands that fly bartenders to ice hotels in Scandinavia, throw parties in strip clubs, sponsor the mixing of the world’s largest margarita or tattoo the consumer base for lifelong advertising.

And why not? They have the money. According to DISCUS, in 2010, in the U.S. alone, the industry was responsible for more than $400 billion in economic activity, or about one-third of the market share, second to beer. With so many spirit brands—from blueberry-pie vodka to small-batch bourbon—attempting to out-premium or out-flavor one another, it seems the tactics they employ to compete have become increasingly spectacular.

The lack of boundaries is striking when you place even the most accepted marketing practices in the liquor industry in contrast to wine. It’s become common practice for liquor companies to hire a brand ambassador, which is often a bartender, to rep the company on the streets via tastings, seasonal parties and nightly tabs at the right bars. If a sommelier signed on to rep a brand in a similar fashion, it’d be a very quick way to lose all credibility. But somehow blatant schilling has become so embedded in the spirits industry that it’s accepted as a legitimate practice, and people continue to accept the infiltration of messaging and condone its extremities.

In fact, if you adjust the light, it seems almost everyone has bought in at one point or another, whether through a call drink (Ketel One Martini up, please), the choice to stock only Jameson whiskey or sidling up to the chair for a tattoo.

Of course, in the case of Sailor Jerry’s stunt—a co-opting of rebel culture—it’s impossible to discount the power of the freebie. But from an industry perspective, it not only symbolizes how susceptible people have become to liquor branding, but just how deep the branding game has gone.

At the bar, Dana Dynamite, Sailor Jerry’s PR rep, is picking up the tab for cocktails. “People feel like they’re part of a club when they get the tattoos,” she says. Over by the tattoo line, a brand ambassador schmoozes with the inkees, and presses a card into my hand saying, “I’ll take you to dinner and we’ll talk about booze.” A guy who has been there since 10 a.m. is ordering shots and telling me I should just give in and get tatted. The bar has been transformed into a branded waiting room. “You should see the lines,” Dynamite says. “People wait in the rain to get Sailor Jerry tattoos.”

The rum team has set up events all over the country over the past few years tattooing everyone from Diplo to the girl clicking away on her iPhone over in the crusty bar booth. At one event, people threw darts at a dartboard to determine which tattoo they’d leave with. While it sounds absurd, people come from all over to throw those darts and become a walking advertisement, whether they see it that way or not. Sailor Jerry isn’t the only brand jumping on tattoos as “authentic” marketing. After realizing bartenders were so endeared to the Italian amaro Fernet Branca that they were getting tattoos of their own volition, the brand teamed jumped on the bandwagon and began branding bartenders at an annual tattoo party.

In this bar turned tattoo-parlor, bathed in purple-pink light, I ask around to see why people are here. One guy standing around waiting shrugs his shoulders when asked and says, “Why not? It’s free.” The guy who’s been here since 10 a.m. is friends with the brand people and is living it up, ordering round after round of shots. Three girls dressed like it’s July (presumably to flaunt their burgeoning collection of back and arm tattoos) stand stoically at the bar waiting for the bartender to notice them, their various piercings glinting in the dimness. They can’t be more than 22. Another girl says her friend texted her about the event because she’d always wanted to get a swallow tattoo. She’s never heard of Sailor Jerry. If this event doesn’t make her take note, one has to wonder what kind of marketing stunt will? Maybe that’s a question better left unanswered.