Dewar’s Scotch Whisky bills itself as the “drinking man’s whisky.” To most, that probably sounds like simple hyperbolic advertising so commonplace these days. But consider this example the exception to the rule.
Way back in the Glory Days of drinking – if using the historical accuracy of Mad Men is any indication – Dewar’s contracted with the Chicago-based advertising firm Leo Burnett, U.S.A. in the late 1960s to increase sales of its product. The ad firm, in turn, created the idea of a series of print ads of Dewar’s Profiles, with each profile depicting a celebrity or other notable personality endorsing the whisky. The series’ first profile was a young stage actor by the name of Jerry Orbach.
Most people these days know Mr. Orbach from his long-running role as NYPD Detective Lenny Briscoe on the groundbreaking police procedural drama, Law & Order. Lenny, as he was known to his partners (the best being Chris Noth’s Detective Mike Logan) always managed to get in the best quips and one-liners during the show’s first half hour and showcased the deadpan gallows humor resulting from years of grinding police work.
By contrast to that role, the Dewar’s advertisement – produced in late 1969, decades before L&O – depicts a young 33 year old stage actor and stands as an early signpost of Orbach’s future awesomeness. (Ironically, the L&O character for which he is most remembered was a recovering alcoholic.) Looking back on his appearance as the first Dewar’s Profile for White Label Scotch only a few short years before his signature L&O role began, Orbach recalled in a New York Times interview (pictured below), “It made me a Dewar’s drinker.”
Although he was the first (and likely the best) person tapped to promote the whisky “to position Dewar’s among educated and sophisticated young adults,” the ad campaign also reached “into obscure areas to keep it interesting…a bobsled racer, a harpsichord builder and a white-water rafting guide.”
Ultimately, the ad is a great glimpse back at the early days of a great actor, one who enjoyed a fine dram (or at least was paid to say so). One who is gone but not forgotten: not by me, and certainly not by his hometown, New York City.
The fine gentlemen over at It’s Just the Booze Dancing recently highlighted Dewar’s new advertising campaign, featuring British actress Claire Forlani as a “a beautiful, alluring and mysterious Scottish woman with the presence of a queen and the mouth of a gangster.”
An accurate description, to be sure, but I’m of another opinion, one a bit more primitive and much more cynical: Dewar’s took note of Johnnie Walker’s successful partnership with Christina Hendricks, and simply followed suit.
Here’s the difference: Hendrick’s Mad Men role – strong-willed woman as equal member in a male-dominated profession – works to sell a liquor to a male audience. She can easily be pictured as a whisky drinker, as she often does so in her television role. Forlani’s performance, however, feels contrived: she’s appears more a wine drinker, or more likely, a Cosmo girl. And worst, she’s most notable for her roles in Meet Joe Black and Mallrats, both Grade-A stinkers.
Unless Dewar’s was specifically targeting female consumers, they get an A for effort and an F for execution.
“The Media Business: Advertising; 20 Years of Dewar’s Achievers” by Daniel Cuff, New York Times, February 17, 1989