150 Years of Bacardi…

Last Monday I went to see a friend read at the Half King with a group of her fellow non-fiction writers in Columbia’s MFA program. The pieces were hilarious, insightful, and moving. The opening reading was by author Jonathan Rapoport and I think perfectly sums up all that is ridiculous about the advertising industry. But, it also shows how much room there is for marketing that doesn’t dumb down to an imaginary standard American. If you’re in NYC you’ve seen the campaign he writes about on bus shelters, subways and elsewhere around the city.

Jonathan Rapoport’s work has appeared in The Onion, Slate, and on NPR. He lives in New York City. This story is used with his permission.

And Bacardi Parties On

Very soon, if you watch television or browse YouTube for cat videos, you’re going to learn that Bacardi rum is 150 years old this year. The reason I know this is because I’ve seen the coming multi-million dollar ad campaign and was paid to do so as part of series of focus groups that Bacardi is running to test the waters.

A few years ago a friend of mine recommended that I sign up for a focus group recruitment company called Recruit and Field. They are one of those low-overhead, high profit-margin middlemen companies that are the product of endless outsourcing to cut costs – companies with products hire ad companies who hire focus group companies who then hire Recruit and Field, a company which, as best as I can tell, is a woman named Janet in New Jersey. Last month, Janet called me about a focus group for Bacardi.

We started with the standard questions about my background, ethnicity, permanent residence, and, in this case, my age, which needed to fall between 21 and 24. It had been determined by someone that over the age of 25 people are significantly less likely to drink with reckless abandon, which, for an alcohol company, means they’re essentially dead.

“Alright, now I need to ask you a few more specific questions. You can answer with either ‘agree’ or ‘disagree,’” Janet said.

“Ok, let’s begin. I like to have a good time with friends.”


“I like meeting people that are fun.”


“I enjoy going out to have fun.”


“I consider myself someone who likes to have a fun time.”


“Having fun with my friends is important to me.”


“I like to sit in my room alone and dwell on things that make me unhappy.”


“I don’t like friends who are fun.”


“I dislike meeting new, interesting people.”


“I always need to be the center of attention.”

“Disagree.” There was a long pause on the other line.

“Uh. No.”

“What do you mean no?”

“You don’t disagree with that.”

“I don’t?”


“Ok. Agree.”

“Great! Let’s continue. I think advertising is the newest art form.”


“Yes! I think the high tech digital photography used in advertising is appealing and interesting.”


“Often, the ads are the best part of whatever I’m watching.”


“Yes! Alright, just one more. I’ve never done a focus group before.”

“Disagree.” Another long pause. Then, a throat clearing. Then in a low voice:

“It’d be better if you hadn’t done a focus group.”

“Oh. Ok. I’ve never done a focus group before.”

“No, agree or disagree.”

“What was the question?”

“I’ve never done a focus group before.”


“Fantastic, you’re all set. I’ll e-mail you the time and location.”

When I arrived at the plush office building on 5th avenue for the focus group, I was escorted into a room with five of my peers, all 21-24 year-old men who, like myself, love fun and hate being miserable and alone. There was a nursery school administrator, a retail salesman with filmmaking aspirations, a bearded redhead who was an unpaid intern, and two college seniors. The room had swanky ergonomic chairs and a blue cushioned couch in the corner. One whole side of the room was a mirror, clearly one-way, the kind that police in hour-long dramas stand behind to oversee interrogations. I was waving to the mirror as a tallish blond entered. Let’s call her Kate.

Kate looked to be in her mid to late 30s with medium length dirty blonde hair. She was wearing decent jeans and a nice blouse with a sweater over it. She wore glasses and had slightly messy yet perfectly coiffed hair. She looked, really, like what a focus group might have determined a “cool, casual lady” might look like. When she spoke, she had a slight British accent, which she acknowledged right away so the issue didn’t fester. She had a nice, broad smile and laughed a little too often, sometimes intentionally, other times it seemed a little nervous.

“I’m going to be showing you guys a couple advertisements for a new Bacardi ad campaign. I just want you to relax, take a look at what I show you, and then we’re just gonna talk about what you think.” Everyone nodded. Kate turned briefly towards the mirror then back to a laptop where she cued up the first clip for the large screen by the window.

“150 Years of Bacardi,” the ad began. Then it flashed: “A Bacardi Party in 1957.” The scene opened in the midst of a hopping party with elegantly dressed models dancing and drinking Bacardi. The camera panned across a few aesthetically pleasing faces before settling briefly on a Marilyn Monroe-esque woman in dark sunglasses with a low-cut top who was dancing with a couple men in dark suits with skinny ties. The music was a catchy riff that sounded vaguely old-timey R&B but overlaid with a latin techno dance beat. The camera panned for a few more seconds as everyone danced, and ended with the slogan: “150 years of starting parties. Bacardi.”

“So let’s go around and each talk about what words the ad made you think of what you think the message was, and whether you think it was memorable.” Lots of words got thrown out: fun, party, sexy, old. Most people agreed the message was that Bacardi has been around for a while and Bacardi means a good time. There was some disagreement on whether it was memorable or not, with some people saying the song was catchy and therefore the ad was memorable, and other people saying it wasn’t funny enough. “Ads should be funny, like the Old Spice one with the ripped dude in the towel,” one guy said.

“And what about you Jonathan? What words did this ad make you think of?” Kate asked.

“Nostalgia,” I said.

“What do you mean by that?”

“I mean, I think that ad wants us to be nostalgic for a time that no one in our demographic could possibly remember.” Kate paused as if she were seriously contemplating this, before continuing: “And what about the message. What do you think the message was?”

“The message, I think, is that people drink alcohol at parties.” There were a few chuckles. Even Kate looked mildly amused.

“And would you remember the ad?” She had a way of cocking her head to the side and smiling that made it really seem like she thought you were the smartest person in the world and had the answer she was looking for on the tip of your tongue. I told her no, I didn’t think I’d remember the ad, because it looked like every other alcohol commercial I’d ever seen about hot people with alcohol dancing in bars.

A few people were nodding while I was talking. I had convinced myself that my honesty on the issue was in the best interest of Bacardi’s marketing team, who, after all, were paying me a whole $100 to tell them what I thought. Several of the other focus group people chimed in, saying that they agreed with me, and even Kate seemed to have a glint in her eye, something about the way she giggled intermittently while I was talking or smiled and shifted her weight that made me believe that she agreed with me too. She was just so damn likable that maybe I wanted a little too hard for her to believe I was right. Although, of course, I have no idea what she thought, because her likeability, her good listening skills, these are undoubtedly things she’s cultivated for years as a professional market researcher.

When I was finished, we all got back to work. Kate showed us three more ads, or rather they weren’t ads. “These are little videos that Bacardi filmed, but they’re not ads. So don’t critique them as ads,” she said, as if she were a bit embarrassed. In each one, actors in poorly chosen period clothing stepped into a spotlight and announced themselves as various characters – “a baseball player” “a bar maid” “a foreign dignitary” “a politician” – the way kids in elementary school plays do, mixed in with archival footage, and then a voiceover said something about mixing it all together to make an authentic Bacardi experience. They were overly stagy and the costumes were all wrong. The lighting was bad and the camera work was shoddy. The ads sought to highlight Bacardi’s history, starting as a family business in Cuba through its expulsion during the Cuban revolution, and finally its reemergence as a major alcohol distributor in the US. The goal of which is, presumably, to overcome the image of Bacardi as what one person in my focus group called “a factory alcohol.” None of us even knew that Bacardi was actually a family name and not something dreamed up in a boardroom.

Most people in the group agreed that while the quality of the latter ads was low, their general theme was right – emphasizing Bacardi’s history and showing what the brand has been through. Everyone agreed that ads that focused on history made the brand seem more authentic, and that ads using archive footage were doubly effective at showing authenticity because the footage was real, rather than the overly staged, highly produced earlier ad. One guy said that first ad looked like “a dress up party. Like everyone in it was from now, but just wearing clothes from back then. Like they were just being paid to do that stuff. Like it wasn’t a real party, you know?”

“Like they were actors in an advertisement,” I chimed in and Kate shot me a look.

None of us brought up the irony of discussing how to properly manufacture authenticity.

Bacardi isn’t alone in celebrating a birthday this year. Motel 6, the nationwide motel chain is 50 this year and has been running an ad in which a family and their car on the road slowly morph through the ages before arriving at a Motel 6 in a stylish modern day minivan. “Motel 6. 50 years and the light’s still on.” For its 100th anniversary, Life Savers is running ads that read: “A hole lot of fun,” adapted from the company’s inspiringly descriptive ads from the 1940s: “The candy with the hole.” They’re also introducing “anniversary edition” boxes with vintage wrappers from the 1930s.

The purpose of such “comfort marketing,” a term The New York Times coined, is “what brand managers call authenticity: reminding shoppers who seek value in the provenance of merchandise to suggest a product is worth buying because its quality has been tested for decades.”

I think “nostalgic marketing” would be a more accurate term for what’s happening, and that isn’t really about comfort in the traditional sense. There’s some vague notion in our society that retro is chic because it’s authentic, because it existed before “social construct” was a word used in the vernacular; that it harkens back to a time when things were real because that was the only option. That kind of nostalgia is about the idea that the past was simpler and better. It’s something we all understand when we reminisce about our childhoods or politicians talk about an America that allegedly once was.

But nostalgic marketing misses exactly what actually makes nostalgia – that it is itself a construction. The simpler and more authentic past never really existed. There’s only the feeling that lives on in our minds, a time that we can’t get back to. That’s the root of the word, from “nostos” to “return home” and “algos” meaning “pain.” The source of the pain is that we can’t go back, and somewhere deep down we know that even if we could, it wouldn’t be the same. The past isn’t secretly better or more authentic. It doesn’t hold the answers. We just edit it so it looks that way.

Back at the focus group, we brainstormed ideas. “You should focus on the fact that Bacardi is from Cuba, cause that makes it sound exotic and more authentic,” one guy explained. Forget that Bacardi was exiled from Cuba during the revolution when all its assets were seized. Or the fact that its owner in the 1960s purchased a B-26 bomber with plans to personally bomb oil refineries in Cuba. Or that the company got sued in the late 1990s, for misleading advertising since the alcohol is made in the United States.

“What do you guys think of the story of how Bacardi got made?” Kate asked referring to Bacardi’s early attempts to brew the rum, an alcohol that by Bacardi’s own telling was so awful that it was undrinkable.

“Yeah, that’s good. He worked really hard and then was successful,” one of the college seniors piped up.

“But don’t you think emphasizing that the drink was undrinkable might be bad for a product whose only requirement is that you be able to drink it?” I asked. Kate laughed a little perfunctory laugh and then asked for more suggestions.

The aspiring filmmaker in the group offered the following: “I think you should focus on the drinks. Like the Cuba Libre. How it got its name and stuff. You know, the history of it.”

“Yeah, that’s great,” Kate chirped and beamed. “The ad said something about American soldiers drinking them in Cuba right? I’m not entirely sure of what that refers to, but you’re right that could be good.”

I raised my hand again. “I’m pretty sure that’s from the Spanish-American war, when we invaded Cuba, made them sign a treaty saying we had the right to invade whenever we deemed it necessary, and permanently annexed Guantanamo Bay.” The other focus group members looked around. Kate frowned for a second and then quickly flashed a warm smile.

“I think we can leave that part out.”

-Jonathan Rapoport


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