Celebrities Walk A Fine Line With Alcohol Endorsements

November 10, 2010  |  

Jazmine Sullivan’s “Holding You Down (Going In Circles)” is probably one of my favorite songs playing on the radio right now. Okay, I know its kind of old (in this have-it-now world, two months is considered old school) but the catchy 90s-R&B swing throw-back beat combined with her sultry voice had me in full “like” mode by the chorus.

That was until I saw the video. Don’t get me wrong; the 80s theme party, which was an obvious homage to House Party with Kid-N-Play was really cool.  But half-away through the song, I started to feel very uneasy about the endless product placement of liquor bottles.  I mean it was everywhere in the video; every 30 seconds or so, you see it on the mantle, on the DJ table and in the hands of some of the happy house party dancers.

If there could have been a tagline for the video, it probably would have read like this: no house party is complete without a bottle – or two – of this pink sparkling Kool-aid flavored liquor.

It wouldn’t have been that bad if not for the fact that the video itself is played in heavy rotation on MTV and BET as well as available by request via YouTube. As an adult, I can reconcile that what I’m seeing is the not so subtle approach to product placement (actually it was product overkill but why split hairs). Many kids watching this video might not be so keen on the ability to differentiate between what’s real and what’s purely advertising.

From Rick Ross’ endorsement of Rosay to Sean “Puffy” Combs endorsement of Ciroc, hip-hop has fully embraced their relationship with alcohol makers.  Although more noticeable, it’s not unusual as back in the 80s, it was all about Billy Dee Williams and Colt 45, which we learned works every time. And how could we forget one of the greatest ad-campaigns ever, which infused ST Ides malt liquor with some of the greatest rappers in the early 90s?

However, the difference is that today’s artists are doing more than endorsing the product but rather cashing in as partners and sometimes owners of the firewater.

For instance, Ice-T, former original gangster and current Law & Order cop, is launching his very own Original Gangster XO Brandy. So what does a gangstafied brandy consist of: apricots, vanilla, caramel and hazelnuts. Yeah that’s some real gangsta stuff right there. Last time I’d checked, apricots and hazelnut weren’t hittin’ out on the hard streets of L.A. Now, excuse me as I shake the image of a baseball cap wearing, tattooed apricot caricature throwing up gang signs and yelling thug life, out of my head.

All jokes aside, these endorsements and partnerships with liquor companies do beg the question as to whether or not celebrities, particularly black celebrities, have a moral obligation to refuse advertising for (or selling) alcohol.

According to a study released a few years ago, more than 30 percent of American adults have abused alcohol or suffered from alcoholism at some point in their lives. Combine that statistic with the ever so present liquor stores littered throughout inner-city neighborhoods and you can see how folks might be alarmed.

Even Spike Lee isn’t immune from the scrutiny as last week, he found himself at the center of controversy for the limited edition Absolut bottle, which rolled out last summer. The bottles, which are emblazoned with the phrase “A Spike Lee Collaboration” and featured the skyline of his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, drew the ire of some local teens, who felt that Lee was being a bit hypocritical for making films that uplift black people, while simultaneously working with major corporations to convince us to drink more liquor.

I can somewhat relate. Growing up in Philly, I too noticed the many celebrity endorsed alcohol advertising in the hood, and was a little bothered by how non-existent these ads were in the more affluent neighborhoods. However, I’m not quite sure how a Brooklyn skyline-inspired bottle with Spike Lee’s name attached, constitutes bringing the community down.  Last I checked, Lee’s movies have rarely been G [all-audience]-friendly.

One the other hand, Ice-T’s latest venture makes me wonder about what mature adult you know is interested in sipping on gangster-themed brandy, co-owned and endorsed by a man that wrote “Cop Killer?” Don’t get me wrong, I mess with the old school Ice-T but it’s pretty obvious who might be more inclined to want to follow the “gangsta” lifestyle.

For the record, I am not the sort of bible-waving moralist, who believes that alcohol is the devil’s libation and should be avoided at all cost. And, from a purely capitalistic standpoint, it doesn’t make much since that it would be okay for African Americans to spend millions of dollars on liquor, but should not reap any profit from the sale of it.

Sean “Puffy” Combs alliance with Ciroc has allowed for him to have complete control of all brand management and images attached to his name.  The result has been to push Ciroc as top-shelf liquor, which pretty much limits the advertising dollars spent targeting not only children, but lower-income black communities. With that said, folks, particularly black folks, should be cognizant of what could be considered as exploitation happening behind the radio speakers, on the television and within the pages of glossy magazines. And celebrities and entertainers, particularly black celebrities and entertainers, need to understand that when it comes to alcohol, there is a fine line between advertising and exploitation.  And sometimes that line becomes blurred, if not crossed, when the product becomes fixtures in music videos, TV shows and songs on the radio, where youth are the primary market.

Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.

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