The latest woozy logic of liquor ads

The woman is designed to be formidable. Her wardrobe is by Pinky & Dianne. Her jewelry is by Marsha Breslow. And her facial expression is by "Mean Joe" Greene.

That face has not smiled in years -- if ever. How, an awed viewer must ask, does she brush her teeth?

The eyebrows are plucked to a fine angry line of "How-dare-you!" And the eyes! The eyes, as they say, are blazing with cold.

What outrageous injustice has lit up this icy fire? A caption above the scene puts the following words in the woman's furious mouth: "Isn't it time you knew an exciting drink to order? -- instead of taking a man's suggestion."

Well, no wonder she's fit to be tied -- in the most elegant way, of course.

And sure enough -- there's the highball glass in hand and a gorgeously translucent bottle before her, snuggling up to bowls of grapes and nuts and outlining itself against the Pinky & Dianne skirt.

Try as we all may, who can forget the advertising slogan, "You've come a long way, baby"? The same shameless argument that exploited cigarette smoking as a chapter in women's liberation is now being picked up by liquor manufacturers.

Our Pinky & Dianne heroine spells it out further as she continues her indignant monologue: "I used to skirt the issue of what cocktail to order -- deferring to my male companion." Next she invites us to "imagine how happy I was" -- no easy task, considering that face -- when the bottle on the table dropped into her life. Then, as if concluding a speech in support of ERA instead of a distiller, she urges the women in her audience to order her drink too, "not just because it's an exciting drink," but "because it's also a slightly courageous move."

One can almost hear an obsolescent cry of, "Right on!"

Would that our grim Bacchante were an isolated case! But no. A wine ad on television depicts another young woman who has just vaulted to the presidency of her company. As her first proof of executive genius, she throws a party at which she pours the sponsor's brand. "Your time has come," burbles a congratulatory voice from the vineyard -- outrageously equating women's emancipation with the right to join the male club of wine snobs.

It is ironic, but hardly coincidental, that the drinking woman should become the target of liquor advertisements just as reports of rising alcoholism among women are hitting the headlines.

How times have changed! Ten or fifteen years ago the rugged male -- preferably on horseback, with a tattoo showing, thanks to a coyly rolled-up sleeve -- was the fantasy that sold cigarettes and liquor. He was all virile independence -- remember the "thinking man's filter"? And he couldn't smile either.With the same erratic logic, the consumer of those days was invited to be a nonconformist by conforming by the millions to this nonconformist's taste.

Now the macho woman, as it were, has succeeded the macho man as the ad writer's phony stereotype. The macho-man fantasy was disgracefully successful at peddling tobacco and liquor. Will women be as naively vulnerable to the new overtures?

Once advertisers concentrated on selling mouthwash, deodorants, and floor wax to women when they were perceived as the "little woman" or the "better half." But there is just as much condescension -- and even more manipulation -- to these campaigns that suggest a liquor glass in the hand and a cigarette in the mouth are as significant symbols of equality as the women's vote. Furthermore, the "little woman" ad is still very much with us too. There she is, squeezing the tissue and going into mindless ecstasy over the latest tile cleaner -- right next to the emancipated sipper in her Pinky & Dianne dress, who, you can bet, never touched a sponge except when scuba diving.

Advertising is famous for its non sequiturs. One doesn't buy a car. One buys the dream of the mansion or the swimming pool or the Beautiful People beside the car. These are the rules of the game, and we, the duped, even smile -- sometimes - when the con is charming enough.

But when consumer's choices are crudely confused with idealism -- when selecting a particular brand of liquor is presented as a feminist act of courage -- mere silliness turns into a rather nasty bit of mind-bending. At this point we do well to remind ourselves rudely of the remark of the president of a Scotch whiskey importing company, quoted last week in the New York Times: "You can only drink one thing at a time. We're in the business of competing for gullets."

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