"So what's your column on next week?" the creative director
"Ah, that must be new. Describe it to me."
"Well, it's got this dog doing a cabaret act and, er, it ..."
"Christ, it sounds awful."
Harsh perhaps, but it is true that mere words don't do J. Walter
Thompson's new Smirnoff Red campaign justice. But then, nor would they
have helped to describe the much-lauded "through the bottle" campaign
from Lowe Howard-Spink. Let's see: there's this bloke and every time he
looks through the bottle, what he sees is distorted. Piano keys become
penguins, an old man turns into a walrus and a brooch becomes a
tarantula. Doesn't make much sense, does it?
Anyway, let's have a go with JWT's ad, "the crooner". We open on a swish
New York cocktail party in, say, Greenwich Village or the Upper East
Partygoers are drawn by the sound of a piano where an entertainer is
doing his 50s-style cabaret routine. Think Jackie Mason or George Burns.
Only it's a dog (actually, it's a bitch, but more of that later).
"What a piece of tail. I never chased a postman as hard as I chased
her ... I catch her in another guy's basket ... I wasn't going to
argue ... He was a boxer. All she said was: 'What do you expect?
I'm a bitch.'" As the dog breaks into a spirited rendition of that
cabaret standby That's Life, the audience applauds.
It doesn't sound funny, yet it is. Partly it's the way the dog's paw
movements and facial expressions have a near-human quality - an effect
achieved by filming the human comic doing the routine and getting the
dog to mimic them via the talents of Jim Henson's puppeteers. This
allows us to concentrate on the routine, rather than the dog itself.
Partly, also, it is the fact that it is a real dog (a Weimaraner) which
gives it an extra authenticity that computer generation may never have
Thus we are able to suspend disbelief for what is a trick at the outer
limits of credibility. Without this essential credibility, the whole
artifice would come tumbling down.
But what has a singing dog got to do with Smirnoff? The answer, of
course, is the vodka effect, as in "I went to this amazing party in New
York and you'll never guess what I saw". It's true, of course, that this
is in a long tradition of Smirnoff Red advertising, from the famous 70s
Young & Rubicam "I used to be an accountant until I discovered Smirnoff"
through to the more recent Lowe work - the message being that amazing
things can happen to you after a vodka, aka the vodka effect.
The difference between this campaign and the Lowe work is in the
Received wisdom has it that Lowe was fired by UDV for its
That was almost certainly true, but it probably wasn't the whole
Much as I admired the technical skill of the Lowe work, it also had a
disturbing element to it. Indeed, the longer the campaign went on, the
darker it became. Drink vodka, it said to me, and your whole world turns
maudlin and a bit nasty too. I don't like vodka, but that didn't seem
like a good way to entice people to drink the stuff.
By contrast, the mood in the new ad is up, it's engaging, it's lighter
and also a lot younger, critical as the age profile of vodka drinkers,
many of whom start with vodka "alcopops" such as Smirnoff Ice and Red
Square, drops. These things matter when, with Smirnoff Red, you have a
And the dog/bitch thing? Well, when you use real male dogs, you've got
to guard against what the trade calls "dog schlong". Hence the bitch -
only they had to airbrush out her nipples. Well, that's the vodka effect
Dead cert for a Pencil? It'll pick up something, even if it's for Best
Use of a Weimaraner.
Will it work? After 13 months in the making? It better.
What would the chairman's wife say? Nice dog. Is that like the Bacardi