Sin is for sale. Everywhere I look, I see indulgence and the allure of immorality on tap. Sin selling takes many forms, including provocative and deliberately vapid TV commercials for The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas or glossy magazine pages that tout the intrepid quality of the Heineken drinking experience. There is outsize demand for engagement with sin because, no matter how pure we might consider ourselves to be, there is a wild, roguish sense of irresponsibility that lurks just beneath our collective surface of propriety. In this sense, it is incumbent upon liquor brands, casinos, and gentlemen’s clubs, representational incubators of sin, to catalyze and capitalize on that mischief that makes us both love and hate who we are.
In marketing the sin of drug consumption to a broad cross-section of a global audience, the liquor industry in particular has garnered inordinate success. One liquor ad I recently came across is a Cîroc vodka image promoting the brand’s newest flavor, Cîroc Pineapple. The image overemphasizes the exotic quality of pineapple-flavored vodka’s symbolic value, depicting a young woman with sharp features (but, oddly, no pupils) sporting an overwrought headdress featuring a fresh pineapple; an array of green, white, and yellow petals that seem to be made of silk; and an unopened bottle of Cîroc’s newest starlet. Just as striking as the image itself is the advertisement’s written promise: “Paradise is only a sip away.”
Such a declaration puzzles me. Is it referring to a real or a metaphorical paradise? That is to say, by sipping Cîroc Pineapple and drifting off into a world blushed by the rosy tint of inebriation, am I to feel as though I’ve reached some sort of paradisiacal bliss? Or, am I to believe that the environment and particular locale in which Cîroc Pineapple ought to be sipped at the Cheval Blanc’s haute cocktail bar in St. Tropez, is some terrestrial paradise in and of itself? Does the quality of the liquor make paradise or does paradise make the quality of the liquor?
Ultimately, I think it’s much more important to curate where and how Cîroc Pineapple is consumed than to determine whether the liquor is even consumed at all. For example, I can bathe in the radiance of a summer sunset in St. Tropez, wearing a white suit while inhaling the honeyed fragrance of fresh purple roses, simply luxuriating with an unopened bottle of Cîroc Pineapple by my side and say, “Wow, this is paradise.” Or, I can split a bottle of Cîroc Pineapple with disgruntled ex-convicts, one of whom lost an eye but refuses to wear a patch over the inflamed scar tissue, in the musty cellar of a dilapidated farmhouse in Hoople, North Dakota and say, “Wow, this couldn’t possibly be further from paradise.”
So, Cîroc Pineapple in particular, like many other liquor brands that target a similar audience of nouveau riche yuppies, derives its value not from any intrinsic characteristic that it may boast but from the social capital that those who buy Cîroc tend to flaunt. In fact, it seems that the value of Cîroc Pineapple is self-fulfilling, insofar as those people who buy Cîroc with the subconscious intention of being transported to some nebulous space of “paradise” encourage others to buy Cîroc, who in turn stumble toward “paradise” with Cîroc in hand and a gaping smile to boot.
Given how captivated I am by the visual rhetoric of selling sin, I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what the advertising scape will look like when the consumption of marijuana comes to take its place on the world’s pop culture scene. As is, quite vociferous debate has ensued recently regarding the potential benefits and detriments of marijuana legalization. This debate has been relatively wide-ranging, toggling between the physical and neurological effects of marijuana consumption, discussions about increased tax revenue that marijuana legalization brings with it, and a series of PSAs that juxtapose the benignancy of marijuana’s effects against potential transgressions that alcohol consumption has the power to trigger. At this stage in the game of marijuana politics, pro-legalization supporters focus on undermining alarmist rhetoric that dramatizes the death of brain cells and overcrowded jails, so we are still far from a future in which marijuana consumption is marketed in the way that more culturally ingrained sins are marketed today. But, for the sake of projection, what will such a future entail?
Let’s say that 50 years in the future, Oracle Bud cannabis (known simply as Oracle) is the veritable Cîroc of marijuana. Oracle is renowned for its unusual potency (a whopping 45 percent THC, according to the fine print on Oracle advertisements), can be used for medicinal purposes, and is generally known as top-shelf cannabis. Furthermore, Oracle, which is undoubtedly one of the most expensive marijuana strains in the world with a retail value of approximately $80/gram, holds the dubious distinction of being genetically identical to AC/DC, a different strain of marijuana that retails for less than $10/gram. How does the Oracle brand justify its high prices while not succumbing to the undermining fact that it is identical to a much cheaper strain of marijuana? That is to say, does Oracle consolidate its reputation as some of the world’s finest weed?
In proffering answers to such questions, one must delve a bit deeper into the specifics of the Oracle brand. The marijuana itself is a cross between three strains: Euphoria Unlimited Bud, Elephant Bud, and Ultra Fast Upstate. The flavors evoked by the weed, according to Oracle, include berry, sweet sugar cane, and basil, and the weed is a product of Nepal. So, what we have in Oracle is an exotic product, steeped in the mystic lore of the Orient with a brand name invoking hallucinogenic traditions of soothsaying ancients. Can you begin to see the ad coming together?
Rather than the quirkily elegant young woman that Cîroc uses to incarnate the allure of its new pineapple vodka, Oracle might use a lion’s head on a man’s body to market its weed. Picture that. The lion/man holds in its hand a lit blunt from which smoke emanates and the lion reclines on a bed of cannabis plants, just luxuriating in the scent of marijuana as he is transported to a distorted dimension of perception. In the background of this scene one sees a vast, silvery lake off of which sunlight elegantly dapples and, in the faint distance beyond this mythic cannabis forest, a hazy sun shines on the scene, casting its misty rays all about the image. Next to the lion/man, in neon green lettering, the ad says: “Magic is only a puff away.” Toward the bottom corner of the ad, the words “Oracle: The World’s Strongest Weed” are displayed. Oracle’s success, in this sense, will be predicated on having users view the weed’s potency as the spiritual mechanism that unlocks a kingdom of magic, mythology, and sublime relaxation. Such an experience, Oracle’s advertising purports, is worth the sky-high price.
Will such an ad ever exist? To be honest, I rather hope not. Running into the aforementioned ad at the Union Square subway station at 1:30 a.m. seems, to me, an unsavory prospect. I would probably look at the ad briefly, be repulsed by its gaudy insanity, and then mourn the fact that the 4 train has failed me in its tardiness yet again. But, on the off chance that Oracle’s marketing really takes off and the company manages to consolidate its path-breaking rise to superstardom within the murky marijuana industry, I will look past the ad and be there to celebrate.
Lai is a member of the class of 2015.