CULTURE JANUARY 6, 2014
“What is the Order of Gentlemen?” asks the actor in the whiskey commercial—one of those pitchman questions that no one, while toggling between a Wednesday night hockey game and a rerun of The Big Bang Theory, wishes to be answered. No matter, though: He’s ready to break it down for us. Our interlocutor wants us to know that his product—Gentleman Jack, a more expensive variant of the classic Jack Daniel’s No. 7—doesn’t just promise a smoother finish, but also a ticket to a loftier social station.
For a few extra dollars a bottle, customers can now purchase their way, as he describes it, into “a secret society, bound to honor the simple dignity of gentlemanhood.” The meaning of that neologism he naturally keeps hidden, but we get the strong sense that he is its personification: grizzled, yet polished, immaculately stubble-faced, disdainful of the masses, and a little dangerous.
If such an Order truly existed, its ranks would have multiplied the last few years, judging from the proliferation of similar TV spots. The airwaves are chockablock with sage spokesmen for mass-produced liquors, each directing their viewers to attain a more cultivated masculinity through costlier drinking habits. Jack Daniel’s, Jose Cuervo, 1800 Tequila, and a few other companies have all developed swaggering mascots.
Kiefer Sutherland is the newest Gentleman, kicking back after a taxing day of mutilating America’s foes with a splash of Cuervo:
In his passion for Mexican spirits, Sutherland is surpassed only by fellow has-been Ray Liotta, now moonlighting as the suit-clad mouthpiece for 1800. The estimable tough guy, who previously lent a certain hoodlum gravitas to Heineken, has taken over the reins from his old Goodfellas running-mate Michael Imperioli. Liotta’s contribution to the cult of the liquor-ad Gentleman is indispensable, and his minute-long promo its central text.
The commercial is comparable to a short film directed by the ghost of John Huston, only very bad. Blanketed in steam and lens flare, our antihero steps off a train apparently arriving from 1990, when men were men and Ray Liotta could still anchor major films. To the accompaniment of greasy guitars, he makes his way to the nearest local to order his favorite spirit and stare down the feebs at the other end of the bar:
Consider the look of disgrace upon the weaklings’ faces as they fiddle with their maraschino cherries. Don’t they understand that a true Gentleman is too busy humiliating strangers to sip on fruity cocktails?
And yet Liotta seems a model of forbearance next to his predecessor Imperioli, whose memorable close-up segments would feature him glaring into the camera and dispensing cryptic koans, the answer to which only a grave, B-list celebrity could provide. “Whatever happened to conversation?” demands Tony Soprano’s deadbeat nephew. “Whatever happened to real drinks? Where are my keys?” (I made that last one up):
In brief, the liquor-ad Gentleman transformation from the elevation of the old 80s-movie villain, the slick douche, into a life coach—or, more accurately, a lifestyle coach. He is knowing, well-groomed, cosmopolitan (did you catch Sutherland strumming a pipa on the back of that bus?), and evidently a cad. It is the role that Bradley Cooper was fortunate enough to grow out of, and one which, if he isn’t careful, he may reprise later in his career.
The whole thing almost makes you yearn for the Coors Light school of PR, complete with its carnival of frat boy hijinks—for all those twins and remixed postgame press conferences—in which the most important distinction is between fun-lovin’ bros and their killjoy women. This flavor of sexism is certainly on order, of course, in all realms of marketing, but hooch merchants have increasingly embraced a cranky narrative of manliness besieged by juvenilia and effeteness as well as castrating femininity. The ethos they peddle is one of atavistic stoicism, entirely appropriate in a male culture that somehow hails the psychologically broken Don Draper as its generational role model.
The trend, as near as I can tell, came about as part of wider backlash against the futility of mid-00’s male adulthood. Without pausing to rehash the past decade of pseudo-sociological debates over whether men have reached their end, are still necessary, or are in need of saving, it seems more than plausible that advertisers would turn to a stylized, if outmoded, paradigm of masculinity in order to attract a generation of men either threatened by obsolescence or mocked by puerile, Knocked Up-style spoofs. And so our most successful brands attempt to convince us that the Dodge Charger is the final inheritance of the sons of Adam and that Dockers are somehow a badge of solidarity instead of the world’s most famous showcase for Dad Butt.
Not all Gentlemen are as smug as the tequila mobsters. The first and greatest of the alcoholic Svengalis was Dos Equis’s beloved Most Interesting Man in the World, the consummate parody of a knowing counselor-cum-cheap Mexican beer mascot. From his ridiculous legend emerged a succession of imitators, all casting the Gentleman as a figure of fun.
And yet the Most Interesting Man’s benign worldliness is also derived from a preference for liquor above other beverages. Think about his famous slogan: “I don’t always drink beer…but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis.” We are meant to understand that a man of his eminence would typically favor the hard stuff—something like Cuervo, perhaps—over measly beer. His endorsement of the brand, therefore, elevates it to the seriousness and sophistication of real alcohol.
Maybe there’s nothing inherently dangerous about the rise of the Gentlemen. The gender stereotypes they promulgate are already well-ingrained, and some of the more sincere examples of the genre are basically harmless. Chivas’s “Life with Chivalry” campaign, for instance, makes a perfectly bland case for brotherly boozing as a call to maturity, decency, and taste:
Examine it closely, however, and the exhortation falls apart. The ad consists of a set of platitudes overlaid atop some general images of menschdom and happy camaraderie. This form of chivalry—man’s emptiest virtue—is defined as a kind of gestural nonconformity, an honor devoid of context, a courage without cost. It’s a puffed-up version of “gentlemanhood,” and at its heart lies the same status obsession that haunts the trope in all its forms. If we choke down the right blended Scotch, it promises, we can share in “a code of behavior that sets certain men apart from all others.”
The liquor-ad Gentleman may be a macho figment, but he is an intoxicant unto himself. These companies have found a way to bottle self-regard and use it to help sell their main products. But why? After all, we were buying those anyway.