Lady Liquor: Race, marketing and uneasy relationships
It's Thanksgiving, which means many things to me, one of which is that it's time, once again, to watch Snoop Dogg (um, back when he still was Snoop Dogg) making mashed potatoes with Martha Stewart. It occupies roughly the same spot in my heart as this clip of Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing "The Little Drummer Boy" together. They both capture an essential component of the holiday season, which is getting together with people you're not sure you have anything in common with, and smoothing out the awkwardness as best you can, either by singing together (if that's your thing), or by eating a grip-ton of mashed potatoes.
And, uh. Cognac.
First, no, I don't know what's up with that bottle design, though it's safe to say Landy – a relatively new cognac that signed Snoop on for an endorsement deal a few months before this episode of Martha's show was filmed -- wasn't all that concerned about reaching female customers.
It doesn't surprise me that Snoop took the opportunity to engage in a little product placement, though he's also joked about pot brownies on Martha's show. What's more interesting is that Landy's deal with Snoop appears to be a case of the tail wagging the dog. References to cognac started appearing in hip-hop lyrics as early as the 1990s – somewhat, it seems, to the surprise of cognac makers. Previously the brandy (named for the region in France where it's made) was marketed to older, upper-class and upper-middle class white folks, at least in the U.S.
After a few years, the stodgy, slumping cognac industry seized on the trend and started enlisting rappers for endorsement deals; right after Snoop was shown pouring yak into mashed potatoes, Hennessy released a special edition cognac to celebrate Obama's inauguration.
African-Americans probably don't make up the percent of the market that some cognac makers claim. But the cognac industry continues to court African-American customers heavily, and rappers are still coveted spokespeople for luxury booze (even if they're also, uh, shilling for Hot Pockets).
Weirdly enough, booze manufacturers have used similar tactics to court black drinkers before, with notably less success. In the 1980s, as market research started to associate malt liquor with poorer markets, including homeless people as well as African-Americans, malt liquor makers seized on the trend. They sought endorsement deals from rappers, but also drew their ire for exploiting the black public – with Chuck D actually suing St. Ides for snagging and altering part of a Public Enemy song for use in one of their ads.
Writer Charne Graham notes that recent hip-hop has embraced luxury so hard as a genre that it's hard to imagine rappers today endorsing cheap malt liquors. (An exception to the rule being, once again, Snoop, who's apparently never met an endorsement deal he doesn't like, and has drawn fire for endorsing Colt 45 Blast, a fruity malt liquor similar to the controversial Four Loko.)
Some critics (inside and outside of black communities) charging that black youth are exposed to a disproportionate amount of alcohol advertising (though it turns out they also drink less than white youth the same age -- but the same article notes black drinkers tend to, for a variety of reasons, suffer harsher consequences when they drink).
If black leaders feel a little uneasy about being a target market, the feeling seems to be mutual. A 2006 Economist article on luxury champagnes notes the frequency with which Cristal is name-checked in hip-hop lyrics:
"In fact, the attitude of the house of Roederer to the unexpected popularity of Cristal among rappers is considerably more circumspect. Frédéric Rouzaud, who took over from his father as managing-director of the winery in January, says that Roederer has observed its association with rap with 'curiosity and serenity'. But he does not seem entirely serene. Asked if an association between Cristal and the bling lifestyle could actually hurt the brand, he replies: 'That's a good question, but what can we do? We can't forbid people from buying it. I'm sure Dom Pérignon or Krug would be delighted to have their business.'"
Reading this exchange, I can't decide whose casual racism freaks me out more: the Economist writer or the man being interviewed. I'll be writing more in the near future about how racial politics has affected both the way we regulate and control alcohol, as well as the way we think about and treat addiction. As uneasy as the relationship is between race, vice and policy, it's no surprise that uneasiness touches the marketplace too.
Previously: Drinking Diaries and women's self-judgment
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