The carbon dioxide of publicity

XXXX drops xxxx date - photographer

FINE DROP: Mumm’s the word at the Melbourne F1 GP in 2007. Picture: Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images

I MUST have a proper look around again because I’m sure I tucked it away somewhere a few years ago. If I find it, I’ll pop scans up here. The brochure advertising Champagne Mumm Cordon Rouge was pretty typical of material designed to convey a feeling of luxury. Expensively printed on heavy paper, it was all big glossy feelgood pictures interspersed with a few paragraphs boosting that brand by means of a sepia company history and some claims for the quality of the product.

Grand. We get it.

But as I thumbed through it, the brochure took a strange turn. Having started out appealing directly to our aspirations, it wandered off into another dimension with examples of its high-profile advertising and sponsorship.

Toto tugs back the curtain revealing the Wizard of Oz as no more than some bloke pulling levers. Attaboy Toto.

In essence, these later pages are saying, “hey look! We’re spending lots of money on things that people like which are expensive like, uh, Formula 1 and hot air ballooning. And after we’ve burned that barrow load of money, we spend more of it on product placement in movies. These are ways we forge aspirational associations with our product which, hopefully, will cause people to buy it!”

Ulp. This is a bit like that moment when Toto tugs back the curtain¹ to reveal the fearsome Wizard Of Oz as just this guy pulling levers. Except that in the Champagne brochure it’s the wizard himself who’s showing us the strings, the smoke and mirrors.

LET US SPRAY: Old-skool podium moment from 2002. Picture: AP Photo/Jan Pitman

LET US SPRAY: Old-skool podium moment from 2002. Picture: AP Photo/Jan Pitman

Many wine fans have long despaired of the F1 tradition of the winners spraying bubbly over each other. Waste of good drink. But this apparently gormless bit of fun has a purpose. The podium finish cork-popping moment (like the pic of Barrichello and Schumacher conducting a tasting for Jean Todt, left) is pure genius: images of a celebratory moment that necessarily put the product centre-stage. Clever and all as it is, the publicity opportunity has been further refined in recent years. There’s nothing random about the way the label is prominently displayed face forward, and how nowadays the brand name is pasted on the bottle upside down to cope with all possible camera angles. Neat.

POP STAR: Alonso's bottle-drop. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images

POP STAR: Alonso’s bottle-drop. Picture: Clive Rose/Getty Images

But the shake-and-spray routine does have its limitations. How closely do you examiner Yorick’s skull in Hamlet or the ball in a match? There’s a growing trend to issue photographs of the product in all its glory with much of the distracting background noise (such as drivers and cars) removed or reduced. This is the bottle drop, when one of the winning F1 team drops a bottle of pop from the podium to his team mates and pit crew below. The example at the top of this page shows Ferrari team principal Jean Todt dropping a bottle to his team in 2007. On the right we see Fernando Alonso doing the same thing at the Nurburgring in 2005. It isolates and energises the package shot we’re meant to be looking at.

Intentional or otherwise, the symbolism is hilarious, suggesting we ordinary people down here can share in this fabulousness. Yay!  And the explicit benefit to the Champagne producer is that the focus is guaranteed to be on their product, with none of the embarrassing ostentation of a Serena Williams press conference. .

The advertising that dare not speak its name

The company’s intentions with the F1 sponsorship is hardly a surprise. Everyone knows those logos don’t appear on the cars’ chassis without reason. It’s advertising. Been around forever. But seeing Mumm spell out examples of movie product placement in glossy A4 layouts is frankly a bit weird, and there are the stills to prove it: Kodak moments, each with GH Mumm’s fizzy alcohol displayed prominently. A Beautiful Mind… Pearl Harbor… The English Patient… Casablanca… Casablanca?

Hang on a minute, the discovery that there may have been product placement in Casablanca is like seeing the Mona Lisa munching on a Snickers. Well, the brochure doesn’t explicitly state that airtime in Michael Curtiz’s classic was bought in cash or kind, but the familiar label with the diagonal stripe certainly does appears all over that drink-sodden movie. And Mumm reproduce a still in the brochure. Just like Fight Club, the first rule of product placement is that there is no product placement. The intention is that we notice the product — but not notice that’s it’s been placed in your favourite movie or TV show to attract your cash. Which is why I got such a queasy feeling seeing the process explicitly laid out in that brochure.

Mumm - without the cars or stars

Mumm – without the cars or stars

I’m not singling out Mumm. They have singled themselves out through this focus on matters that have no connection with the integral qualities of their product. Mumm  is merely one of the Champagne marques, all of which in their various ways engage in similar promotional activity to big up their CO2-impregnated gat. And don’t forget individual companies’ stars’n’cars activity is only one half of Champagne’s success story.

The other half is the exemplary co-opetition (co-operation among competitors) displayed by all the big Champagne producers who joined up to campaign for special recognition of its name in international trade agreements before anyone else thought of such measures. (At some stage in the future I must take a look here at that phenomenon, including examples of the lawsuits taken by France’s finest against other products that dared to use the C-word.)

So I don’t like Champagne then? No, I love it. And, as it happens, at this week’s Irish Wine Show, which showcased a range of wines promoted by independent off-licences in Ireland, I rated Mumm as the best of its peers. But there’s a problem. All. Champagne. Is. Too. Dear. That region of France has nurtured a fantastic wine tradition. A trio of classic grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier — are grown in a relatively cool climate, made into wine and then fermented a second time in bottle, giving it the other two keynotes of its character — that gorgeous warm feeling and of course the bubbles. There’s quite a range of styles within the Champagne canon, whites and rosés at varying degrees of dryness. While not all styles will appeal to all people (my experience, backed up by subsequent evidence, is that most wine fans find simpler uncluttered Champagnes more approachable than the bready, yeasty styles more common in vintage models) it is a cracking way to drink wine. But the Champagne region shares much of that traditionwith other parts of France and with other parts of Europe. Plus now we’ve been discovering that new startups can replicate the, um, tradition.  Every year there are more and more excellent sparkling wines coming on the market, principally from Australia and New Zealand but also from Spain, Italy, Chile, Hungary and elsewhere. I had a glimpse of this recently at the Fizz & Stickies Show. And just a fortnight ago I tasted a very attractive bubbly made in the same way as Champagne, and from the same grapes — in Brazil. We think Champagne is synonymous with good sparkling wine. It ain’t. It’s been commanding higher prices than its equals from elsewhere due not to any of its unquestioned integral qualities, but to the carbon dioxide of publicity. ♦

¹ Toto’s unveiling of the Wizard is no mere flash in the pan. There’s a widely-held misconception that Dorothy is the central character in The Wizard Of Oz whereas in fact she plays a supporting role to the film’s true focus, the small dog who drives the action throughout the movie. Seriously. Watch it again and you’ll see.

One Response

  1. […] nominee Champagnes Under €50, I think the tasting crew hit the nail on the head with the winner, Mumm Cordon Rouge NV. I find it hard to recommend it because of the price. And coincidentally, I recently posted here […]

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