Sex + Design: Behind Canadian Club Whiskey’s 2008 Brand Revival

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Thumbnail for Sex + Design: Behind Canadian Club Whiskey’s 2008 Brand Revival

If you’re remotely familiar with Canadian Club Whiskey’s legacy of ups and downs, than you’ve probably heard about the brand’s renaissance of sorts with their “Dad’s First” Campaign in 2008.

Serendipitously-timed, the first ad of the series hit just one month before the premiere episode of the now acclaimed Mad Men television series aired. And there he was, Don Draper, sipping the classic Canadian Club Manhattan from his smoky glass. (Talk about a timely brand boost.)

But the “Damn Right Your Dad Drank It” series quickly gained cultural traction in its own right. In a challenging advertising climate where “print is dead” wasn’t an uncommon phrase to hear uttered, the Canadian Club print media montage went viral—proving that when a medium is right, it’s absolutely right.

Canadian Club Whiskey

Energy BBDO Chicago

Why Men + Sex Sell in Canadian Club Whiskey’s 2008 Campaign

The “Damn Right Your Dad Drank It” Canadian Club Whiskey campaign was an absolute head-turner. Stop flipping the pages and stare. Limited to print media to preserve the vintage aesthetic of the images, fans of the ads simply couldn’t refrain from scanning, posting and sharing on the web. This campaign would work to reverse sixteen consecutive years of sales decline. It was the long awaited Canadian Club brand revival—and with no website and no video—it was a print-driven success. And it would put brown spirits (and Canadian Club) back on the map.

A resurgence of the 2008 ad series on websites like Buzzfeed in 2013 point to the continued interest in – and irresistible nature of – the images. The content is undoubtedly provocative (some would even argue offensive), but the campaign’s success also lies in the innovative, complex nature of the creative choices, spanning aesthetic decisions to copywriting.

Canadian Club Whiskey

Energy BBDO Chicago

Beyond evoking an initial smirk or chuckle, the well-crafted and carefully executed campaign also raises more complex questions surrounding gender and sexuality. Through its various messages about maleness and masculinity—including prescriptive ideas about how to be a man in modern society —the series hinges on unsavory humor yet continues to captivate the American public.

Inside the Winning Campaign: “Damn Right Your Dad Drank It”

While at Energy BBDO, the creative director duo Derek Sherman and Jason Stanfield was tasked with pitching Canadian Club a winning concept that would turn around a prolonged decline in sales.

Keep in mind that the Canadian Club ads conceptualized by Sherman and Stanfield hit before brown spirits were hip again—pre-Mad Men. “We wanted to make it cool to drink Canadian Club [again],” Derek explains. “So we went out and talked to people in bars, interviewed bartenders—because if anyone would know, they would. And we discovered that no one knew what Canadian Club was.”

In the Sex and the City era of female-centered clear liquor cosmos all the rage, Sherman and Stanfield racked their brains: How do we get guys to drink cocktails? And the idea emerged. Through preliminary research, the creative duo discovered that young men weren’t drinking brown spirits because, essentially, they were thought of as “dad drinks.” And dads aren’t cool.

Whatever You Do, Don’t Mention Dad…

Canadian Club Whiskey

Energy BBDO Chicago

In preparation for Print Magazine’s Sex + Design issue, I caught up with Sherman and Stanfield to go deeper into what made the “Damn Right Your Dad Drank It” series so irresistible …

Can you tell me a little bit about your concept for the ad series? How did you arrive at the concept of “the dad” and what dad was like before he became “dad?”

Sherman & Stanfield: The creative brief direction was “put the masculinity back into cocktails.” Canadian Club wanted to target a younger core audience, guys in their 3

0’s, and these guys didn’t really have a go-to drink that tasted good and they felt manly holding.

The main obstacle was that the client didn’t want to remind this audience that Canadian Club was their dad’s drink of choice, someone who obviously isn’t that cool. Our [creative brief] mandatories were to show a cocktail, the logo, and whatever we do don’t mention “dad.” When we read that it sparked a thought, which was: Wait, my dad might not be “cool” anymore, but when he was my age he was a stud.

He picked up stewardesses and got in fights and probably had more success with women than I’ve ever had. My dad, before he was a dad, is who I aspire to be. And he drank Canadian Club.

Canadian Club Whiskey, Sex and Design

Energy BBDO, Chicago

So the idea was born. Can you talk about your approach to the layout of the print ad series. Did you use 1960’s images or treat new photographs and make them look vintage? How did you execute the design you wanted?

Sherman & Stanfield: At first, we envisioned this a total user-supplied photographic campaign. But for legal reasons, we weren’t able to source the public, so we reached out to everybody within the agency and client network, who gave us about half of what we ended up using. The authenticity of it really helped solidify the truth of our concept.

We did choose to shoot the dominant images in the print. After a big photographer search, we landed on Robert Whitman. He used multiple cameras, a lot of which were strapped around his neck while shooting. He even used vintage film and the only processing center in the country with vintage chemicals. Robert’s amazing, brilliant and tireless. He directed the talent more like a feature film director, and was searching for those little real moments in between the acted moments that reflects the feel of photographs from the 50’s and 60’s.

Today, we’re used to shooting as much as we want and editing on the spot and think of photographs as disposable. But back then, taking a photograph was a special thing. Robert crafted the environment of each set to achieve this feel. Our only problem was having too many great options to cull through.

That process is fascinating! What was the intention of the series (besides selling Canadian Club)? What look were you trying to achieve?

Sherman & Stanfield: The overall goal was to stop a steady 16-year sales decline, which we did the first month the campaign launched. Originally, the aesthetic had been requested to be hip and modern, and to not remind the target audience that it’s an older brand. And of course, we ended up completely ignoring that request. Once we knew we were going to lean into vintage photography, we wanted to make it feel completely authentic. Everybody’s got old photos of their dad – polaroids, slides – and we wanted the advertising to feel like a time capsule.

Canadian Club Whiskey, Print Magazine, Sex and Design

Energy BBDO, Chicago

Can you share any thoughts on trends in advertising with regard to images or modes of “masculinity”?

Sherman & Stanfield: The “manly” brief is about as tired as they get. We groaned when we heard the original brief, but the great thing about Canadian Club is we were able to exploit a truth about it in a really powerful way. We were told that women would hate it, but in fact they were as proud of their formerly devilish dads as guys were.

What were Canadian Club advertisements actually like in the 1960s? Are there differences between the male whiskey lover then versus now?

Sherman & Stanfield: Back in the day, Canadian Club had a bigger sign in Times Square than anyone. They did print ads, but I think it was pretty informative, serious, dry. They didn’t really have a strong brand (or humorous) voice…

Print Magazine Febuary 2014