Alternative Ulster

I can still remember the first time I read Vice. It was a 2009 Babes of the BNP piece that summed up their ethos – sleazy, funny, and cruel. From the get-go I loved their skate-punk nihilism and cartoonish approach to journalism – a mix that that saw them become the go-to resource for disenfranchised twentysomethings. Long before Buzzfeed attempted to bludgeon our attention spans to death with listicles, Vice was the face of a new kind of journalism, one that sparked a debate about what journalism actually is. But whether old media liked it or not, Vice was here to stay.

Ten years on from when I first lolled through their skewering of the BNP, this brilliant long-form dissection of their history shows how they are no longer the crazy punks they once were – they are a massive global media brand, and as such they jettisoned questionable founders like Gavin McInnes, brought in questionable investors in the form of Rupert Murdoch, and sprouted many wings, including Virtue, their advertising agency. The landing page for Virtue shows just how they’ve changed, boasting lines like this one:

Rather than try and fix the agency model, we’ve planted a jungle on its grave. Our DIY punk roots, empathy, and irreverent sense of style breeds work that’s as important as it is attractive.

I read that and all I can hear is the Canyonero jingle, as this is exactly the kind of guff that Vice used to eviscerate. But we all have to grow up sometime.

The greatest trick Vice managed to pull off is maintaining that edgy chic despite their world-conquering position, so it is little wonder that when one of the world’s biggest drinks firms, Proximo, wanted something with bite, they hired Virtue (Jameson went the more direct route with sponsored content on Vice itself). Of course, the only problem with massive firms hiring edgy creatives in order to capture the hearts, minds and wallets of millenials is that massive firms don’t really want edgy – they want safe, and cool, but mainly safe. And this brings me to the new Bushmills promo.

Their heads are practically glowing so strong is the dye they used.

We don’t usually see a lot of TV spots for Irish whiskey here. Our market is in the States, so that is where we aim our advertising spend, and also guides our creative choices. This is why a lot of Irish whiskey ads tend to be a version of Irishness that really does not exist, rooted in a past that never was. Just as The Quiet Man was Maurice Walsh’s daydreaming about a place that didn’t exist, most of the imaginings of Ireland we see in US-based ads are selling a never never land of shirtless youths and comely maidens dancing at the crossroads. Obviously, Proximo wanted something different.

They tasked Virtue with creating a more modern whiskey promo for the tragically-named Red Bush, the new Bushmills expression aimed at the American market –  the ‘Irish whiskey for bourbon drinkers’. Virtue got one of their shining stars, Jessica Toye, to create something cool and edgy and safe. She explains her motivation thus:

While other whiskey brands show Ireland as a caricature of itself with rolling green hills and tweed suits, we immersed people in the Ireland unseen – the gritty streets of Belfast.

I can only assume this ‘green hills and tweed’ comment is a dig at one of the best Irish whiskey ads of recent years, Tullamore DEW’s The Parting Glass. The multi-award winning advert is a masterclass in emotional manipulation with a comedic twist. Yes it is twee, yes it has tweed, and yes it features many rolling hills and even has Ireland’s greatest natural resource – rain – in copious quantities; but it has wit and it has heart, and despite the fact it was made by a London ad agency and was almost never screened on Irish TV, I still see it as one of the best Irish whiskey ads. It is so good that its premise was flipped a couple of years later by two German film students who made the stellar Dear Brother as a spec ad for Johnny Walker.  

But obviously making an ad for Tullamore DEW is a little simpler than making one for Bushmills. As a pitch, the Tullamore DEW brand comes with limited baggage – it is a mix of whiskeys from Bushmills and Midleton, and it is owned by a Scottish firm, but nobody would claim it wasn’t Irish – Tullamore is right there in the dead centre of Ireland.

Bushmills is something else – either Northern Irish, or British, depending on who you are trying to argue with. Irish whiskey may be the category it belongs to, but good luck claiming Bushmills is Irish. But how do you get that message across, if you even want to? How do you retain that magic brand of Irishness, without obscuring the fact that the distillery is in the UK?  

The Red Bush promo had a limited range of options as it has to be set in Northern Ireland – a relatively small place, with only a few globally recognised landmarks. This means you can go film crashing waves and rustic charm around the Giant’s Causeway, or you can go urban and feisty in Belfast. Bushmills is seven minutes from the Causeway, and an hour from Belfast, but if they wanted something modern and fresh, they would have to go urban. And so they did, with something Toye’s website describes thusly:

With a pack of 16 Irish red heads running fearlessly through the streets, RED. SET. GO. reflects the feeling of drinking Bushmills straight. The calm before the first sip, the rush of blood coursing through your veins, and the feeling of freedom with nothing in the way.

It’s all very well to trash ‘tweed and green hills’, but don’t follow it up by using the least accurate stereotype of all – that Ireland is overflowing with red-haired people. Scotland has 13% of the world’s population of red haired people, with Ireland in second place with 10%. Perhaps this places Belfast – with its heady brew of Ulster Scots and Irishness – in the eye of a perfect ginger storm, but given the divisions between those two communities, I’m assuming not.

But the real bravery of Toye’s advert comes not from eschewing rolling hills for cobbled streets, but taking a brief associating anything red with anything in the North. Belfast’s streets have literally run red on enough occasions in the past that even contemplating the concept of Red.Set.Go was a bold move. Or perhaps I am overthinking it – after all, the first thing that came to mind when watching the promo was Alan Clarke’s punishingly bleak Elephant, one of the best films about the Troubles. Perhaps America doesn’t know, nor care, about all this history, or what Ireland – North, south and everything in between – is or is not.

I will let the press release fill in the rest of the dead-eyed, joyless details:

Created and produced by Virtue, VICE Media’s celebrated creative agency, “RED. SET. GO.” depicts a fresh, young, real version of Ireland by following a pack of Belfast locals from dusk to dawn on a lively night out, with RED BUSH in hand. The red-hued anthem immerses viewers in the Ireland unseen. Set in Belfast’s alleyways, underground raves, tunnels and cobblestone streets, the :60 spot is backdropped against the gritty and intoxicating single “Louder” by Kid Karate. The ad showcases this group en route from one destination to another, because truly great nights are about the moments in-between and the anticipation of what’s next.

“The next generation of whiskey drinkers craves real experiences and honest brands – we made ‘RED. SET. GO.’ for them,” said Jeffrey Schiller, Brand Director of BUSHMILLS Irish Whiskey. “For so long, Irish whiskey has been about tall tales and green plastic hats on St. Patrick’s Day, so ‘Irish-ness’ has almost become corrupted. We want to show America the real Ireland, and what better Irish whiskey than BUSHMILLS –Ireland’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery – to show the way.”

“With ‘RED. SET. GO.’ we want to show the raw and electrifying Ireland that sets us apart from the romanticized vision of the country that is far too often portrayed,” said Jess Toye, Creative Director at Virtue. “The sounds, the set, the people represent the real Belfast and convey the excitement and energy of the city.”

Ah yes, the real Ireland and the real Belfast. Two places not on any map, as no true places ever are. Except obviously, this ad captures nothing of the city and could have been filmed in almost any city that had a few cobbled streets, or even on a soundstage.

A scene from the ad in which you need to ask – why girls kissing? Why not two guys?

My disappointment with this ad is ultimately part of my despair around one of the great distilleries on this island. Bushmills is a victim of centuries of geopolitics, bounced around from caretaker owner to caretaker owner, with no-one quite understanding what they are meant to do with the place, or how to handle the complexities of identity, culture, and economics in the North. This ad is symptomatic of the policies of remote control have held both Bushmills and the North back – administrative powers that were removed from any sense of place or culture making decisions that assume too much. And as for the liquid it is pitching, I’ll leave the reviewing to someone who knows more about whiskey and the North than I ever could.

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