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Should bars use sex to sell cocktails?

We all know that sex sells but what happens when bars and their cocktails cross a line? SB asks industry leaders whether more stringent marketing restrictions are needed in the on-trade.

Sex sells – but where should bars and cocktails draw the line with sexualised marketing efforts?

*This feature was originally published in the March 2018 edition of The Spirits Business magazine. 

There’s no doubt that throughout recent history, spirits have pushed the boundaries when it comes to using sex in marketing. In the past, Bulgarian brand Flirt Vodka has produced raunchy posters to attract attention, while sex has also driven publicity for Lust Vodka, Skyy Vodka, Evan Williams Bourbon, Bacardi rum and Cabana cachaça. Advertising authorities and broader public opinion have waged against such marketing tactics in the off­-trade, but what of the on-­trade? They may have happy hours and 2­ for­ 1 cocktail deals, but with competition cropping up on every street, bars, pubs and restaurants are seeking to differentiate themselves with outlandish, and sometimes shocking, marketing messages.

One recent example that came to SB’s attention was the latest promotion from London-­based chicken restaurant Absurd Bird. The deal, dubbed the ‘Orgy Martini Experience’, included “the UK’s biggest Porn Star Martini” – which is a cocktail large enough for four people to share, accompanied by a real-­life porn star, all at a price of £400 (US$556).

“I thought this is absolutely coconuts,” says Mia Johansson, co­-founder of London bar Swift. “I thought it was quite offensive, for someone who is trying to promote alcohol.”

The ‘experience’ made its debut at the Soho branch of the restaurant last month, on the site of the “first-­ever Soho strip club”, which was opened in 1958 by Paul Raymond. According to Absurd Bird, the cocktail was taste­-tested and “given the seal of approval” by porn stars Barbie and Drew, who accompanied customers on the experience during February.

No offence

“I have to say when I saw it I didn’t take offence from it. I think it’s kind of harmless,” says Rosie Stimpson, co-­founder of London venues Nightjar and Oriole. “The Porn Star Martini is a pretty famous drink; what struck me was the uncomfortable 20 minutes sitting with the porn stars, awkwardly sipping your drink and asking very polite questions about how their day’s been.

“It’s a way for them to compete in a
very competitive market and they just sort of think ‘this’ll be interesting, have a Porn Star Martini with a porn star’. It strikes me as a massive gimmick and discerning customers will think it’s a gimmick, and a very expensive experience.”

Absurd Bird’s promotional Porn Star Martini offer, featuring porn stars Barbie and Drew

But it’s not just promotions that can cause controversy. In 2016, a New Zealand bar was forced to withdraw two offensively named cocktails from its menu after being slammed by a former restaurant critic.

Wellington-­based bar Orpheus let customers use an iPad-­based ordering app, which allowed them to access 5,000 recipes from the internet, including cocktails with names such as Pillow Biter and Asian Fetish.

Meanwhile UK bar chain London Cocktail Club, known for its party-­hard reputation, is not one to shy away from lewd names. On the drinks menu, the venue has cocktails named Bump ‘N’ Grind, Kiss Me Quick, and a shot called Blowjob. “I think it’s about getting the balance right,” says James Coston, head of marketing at London Cocktail Club. “It’s meant to be a little tongue­-in­-cheek, no one is expecting that with a Blowjob shot, you would get a blowjob. We’re trying to have a little bit of fun with the customers. People know these drinks, and know them well, so I don’t think people are too shocked by what cocktails are called.”

But what of the rules and regulations that could monitor sex­-inspired marketing in the on-­trade? There are no dedicated laws that govern how cocktails are advertised to the public in bars, yet there are rules that focus on how products are sold in the off-­trade.

UK regulator The Portman Group’s code applies to the naming, packaging and promotional activity of bottled alcoholic drinks. However, the group doesn’t regulate cocktails in bars, pubs and clubs that have been created solely by an on­-trade venue.

The Portman Group’s 3.2 rule prevents brands or marketing from using sexualised images, or alluding to sexual activity, stating: “A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way suggest any association with sexual activity or sexual success.”

London Cocktail Club’s Porn Star Martini

Explicit imagery

Kay Perry, programme and regulatory affairs director at The Portman Group, says: “This would be a licensing matter, and individual premises or operators will have their own voluntary policies and house rules on this matter. In our experience, products that use explicit sexual imagery and/or language to differentiate themselves in the market actually end up alienating a large number of consumers.”

Meanwhile, the UK’s advertising watchdog, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), says that how the promotion is marketed could fall into its remit, whether it’s on the company’s social media channels or website. “We could take into account whether or not it’s irresponsibly linking sexual activity with alcohol consumption and alcoholic brands or products, but the event itself, and its association with a porn star [in the case of Absurd Bird], is not something that we regulate,” explains Matt Wilson, the ASA’s senior media relations officer. Wilson cites adverts for student nights and nightclub events as examples that can breach the code for having themes around sexual success and irresponsible consumption. “We don’t see many individual cocktails advertised in a medium or platform that comes into our remit. But where we do have examples is adverts that may link alcohol consumption with irresponsible consumption and with sexual activity or success,” he adds.

As discussions around gender equality and responsibility in the on­-trade gather pace, it will be interesting to see whether suggestive cocktail names and marketing tactics for bars really have longevity. Personal opinion is divided on the topic, but one thing some stakeholders have urged is for venues to be careful about what they upload to social media.

Stimpson says: “I think there is definitely a forum for discussion about that, because it’s not just what’s happening in the bar, it’s what’s then being disseminated on social media, where young people can pick it up. I think that being very drastic about things, and using certain language sometimes is almost more damaging than a picture of a porn star. You have to be sensitive about these things.

“There is a code that’s understood, and people know when things are entirely appropriate. [But] there is room for it to be written down for people in the on-­trade who are less careful, so they can understand that there is an etiquette to follow.”

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