Women And Whiskey Advertising

Last summer, I met one of my guy friends at a bar in midtown Manhattan. He ordered a Bud Light; I ordered a Jameson on the rocks. "Damn," he said, looking at me as if I'd just set myself on fire. "You're more of a man than I am."

And thus he summed up our society's prevailing attitude toward whiskey: It is a man's drink.

So I shouldn't have been surprised a few weeks ago when I saw the new Jameson print ad campaign lining the walls of my subway car. It features a series of old-fashioned illustrations of men doing manly things like dueling in the street and arm wrestling in a tavern. Few women are present, the most prominent of which seems to be the local prostitute. The message is clear -- real men drink Jameson.

Jameson is not alone in its testosterone-fueled ads. Bushmill's current "Since Way Back" campaign showcases hip men (including ultra-hip musician Bon Iver) hanging out with their equally hip friends. Bushmill's, it seems, is just one of the bros.

And speaking of bros, if you're a fan of Scotch, you can join The Chivas Brotherhood, which brings together "Men who seek and conquer the finer things in life" by giving them access to exclusive events. Judging from photos on the website, women can join the brotherhood, but they will be expected to play foosball.

To be fair, some whiskey makers have tried targeting women. Last Christmas, Jack Daniel's launched their "Spike the Cookies" campaign, which encouraged women to replace various ingredients in their holiday baking with Old No. 7. Because the only way women will consume hard liquor is if it's in dessert.

But maybe JD had the right idea at least. Marketers have been targeting women for decades, recognizing that they usually make most of the purchasing decisions for their households. (Think of Mad Men when Heineken tried to convince the Betty Drapers of America to buy the beer for their husbands.) Today, women account for 85% of all consumer purchases, yet the fairer sex does consume less alcohol, with only 58.3% of women identifying themselves as current drinkers, versus 71.1% of men. But, that number is growing, and shouldn't marketers take advantage of this untapped audience?

Curious, I talked to a friend of mine who, up until recently, worked at a PR firm that represented various spirits companies. He told me that, according to research, women will respond to messages intended for men, but men will not usually respond to messages aimed at women. Of course, this doesn't explain why whiskey companies are so focused on men that they essentially ignore women, but it does make a certain amount of sense. For example, plenty of girls play with Power Rangers or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dolls, but how many boys play with Barbies? Women watch adventure films, but how many men really enjoy rom-coms? This distinction is so pervasive that J.K. Rowling's publisher urged her to go by her initials, fearing boys wouldn't read novels by a Joanne even if the title character was a Harry.

So, I guess the question isn't why don't whiskey makers pay the ladies any attention but, rather, why do women respond to masculine ads while the reverse doesn't appear to be true? Without getting into a gender studies debate, it is unquestionably more socially acceptable for women to embrace things intended for men, while men are more likely to be ridiculed if they are perceived as feminine. But it's deeper than that. Women who embrace masculine interests are often considered smarter, more laid back, and more fun to be around than their prissier sisters. Consider the woman who prefers sports to shopping? Or drinks whiskey instead of Skinny Girl Margaritas? There is just something cool -- to both sexes -- about a woman who is comfortable being one of the guys.

I've felt this first hand. After all, when my friend told me I was more of a man than he was, I considered it a compliment. On a separate occasion, I gleefully told a waiter that the cranberry bellini he assumed I'd ordered with brunch was, in fact, my boyfriend's. The Bloody Mary was mine.

Do my consumer habits make me a traitor to my sex? Am I playing into marketing messages about what is superior or have marketers simply figured something out that we're ashamed to admit? Regardless of the answer, I like whiskey, and if Jameson ever decides to launch a "Real Women Drink Whiskey" campaign, I'll gladly be the spokesperson.