Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum Campaign Comes Off As Too Image Conscious

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Larry Dobrow at MediaPost notes: Alcohol marketing featuring an aspirational or mirth-radiating mascot is like a ham featuring a triple-swabbed raspberry glaze: It works, man, it just does. The presence of swashbuckling lecher Captain Morgan transformed a spittle-grade rum into sorority nectar. The whimsical antics of pansexual dog-god Spuds MacKenzie temporarily elevated Bud Light above Busch and Schaefer in the desperation-beer hierarchy.

This is why one can’t blame the folks behind Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum for endeavoring to grow the legend of its namesake, Sailor Jerry. The key difference? This bind-a-brand-to-a-dude effort features an actual real-life dude: Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins was a salty navy veteran who, from his roughneck perch in Honolulu, became if not the Bob Dylan of tattoo artistry, then at least the Robbie Robertson. Along the way, he mentored a generation of artist/entrepreneurs (notably Ed Hardy) and talked a lot of trash about Richard Nixon (“too liberal”).

That’s why I can’t help but wonder what Mr. Collins would think of the strenuous attempts at myth-burnishing that undermine Sailor Jerry Uncut, a new campaign that seeks to position Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum as the only sensible libation for libertarians, punks and craftsmen. By all accounts, Sailor Jerry was an authentic character, even if biographical materials make him sound like the type of guy who frequently got arrested for disturbing the peace at block parties. So how did it come to pass that this campaign gives him a firm shove towards the realm of caricature? Who’s responsible for this?

The opening frames of Sailor Jerry Uncut’s centerpiece video play like some suit’s idea of how a proudly counterculture brand should look and feel (that’s right – I described this imaginary, contemptuous individual as a “suit.” I’m totally on the right side of things here). We get a close-up on Sailor Jerry’s business card, shots of a band preparing to take the stage in a grime-caked club and a bleached deer skull being lowered into a solution of some sort (chicken broth?). Then the music kicks in – the obscure-but-not-too-obscure “Where Eagles Dare,” by The Misfits – and OMG brace yourself for the avalanche of authenticity, passion and pureness of spirit soon to follow.

The parade of quick-spliced images that come next includes street parties, Korean War-era sailors on shore leave, blonde-and-blue surfer girls, dudes hammering stuff and dudes slicing meat. And tattoos. Lots and lots and lots of tattoos. But the counterculture brashness doesn’t stop there. YouTube tags for the clip include “drinking,” “BBQ,” “TV,” “television,” “commercial” and “butchering,” while a shorter version of the ad aired on Spike, a basic-cable outlet known for convention-challenging gestures like airing Die Hard and Die Hard 2 back-to-back.

The overall effect? That the folks who manufacture Sailor Jerry Spiced Rum are painfully, dotingly image-conscious. This might not be true, as a cursory examination of the Sailor Jerry line of products and corporate ethos (“Norman ‘Sailor Jerry’ Collins remains at the heart of everything we do, not to mention all the crap we refuse to do”) suggests that the people behind them are truly guided by their namesake’s ideals. Nonetheless, that’s the impression one gets from looking at the clip in a vacuum.

It’s a tough assignment, shielding an individual’s hard-won credibility while at the same time trying to sell the products upon which you’ve plastered his name and likeness. I applaud the effort to bring a brand of this kind to the masses. But whatever Sailor Jerry’s marketers were attempting to get at with the clip’s “edgy” images and voiceovers (the rum is described as “bold and smooth as hell”), the company instead comes off as brand-minded as Anheuser-Busch or Kellogg’s. That’s kind of a tragedy, and definitely an embarrassment.
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