OPINION: Mills on ... Smirnoff

"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

mass-market product.

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

for you.

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

cat then?