Ireland Calling by John Spain
Guinness promos were in bad taste
Posted on Wednesday, June 01, 2011 at 08:32 AM
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|Queen Elizabeth watches a pint of Guinness being poured at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin on May 18.|
Now I know the two state visits had a dozen or more things in common and you're probably reeling them off right now, starting with the fact that both Obama and the Queen met the Irish President Mary McAleese.
But it's not that. It's something much more ordinary, yet something that was interesting enough to make headlines and picture stories around the world.
Still don't get it? Let me go give you a clue. This something is about nine-tenths black and one-tenth white. It often has beads of moisture running down its side. It takes a minute or two to prepare and it cannot be rushed.
It is, indeed, the pint of Guinness, a/k/a the black stuff, the national drink of Ireland, etc. etc. It was the one thing, more than anything else, that linked the two visits in the coverage in the international media.
Both the Queen and Obama did many significant things while they were here, things of great symbolism, historical importance and emotion. But it was their encounters with the humble pint of Guinness that made the strongest visual impression in newspapers and on TV around the world.
And I have a major problem with that.
Now before I go any further with this -- and you will be choking on your pint by the time I am finished -- I need to own up to one thing myself.
I love Guinness. It may be an acquired taste, but once you've got it you're hooked forever, and I've been a devotee ever since student days. Nothing else comes close to that malty, creamy, bitter taste, that smooth, bubbly swallow of satisfaction.
In a quiet bar, in the dappled light of a long summer afternoon, a slow pint of Guinness is your only man. On a cold winter's night, with a log fire spitting in the grate of a cozy pub, a pint of Guinness reconnects you with the things that matter in life.
Stop me before I turn into a TV commercial. But you get my drift. I love the stuff.
That's not the issue here. The issue is the way Guinness was allowed to become emblematic of the Irishness of the visit here by the Queen and Obama.
The issue is the way their encounters with the pint of Guinness became the money shot, the must-have picture of our two very important guests enjoying their time in Ireland.
The issue is that these are the shots that went around the world, reinforcing a certain stereotype of the Irish, as though this is all we are.
Now I have no problem with us celebrating our pub culture, the pint of Guinness, the craic, the traditional music, the Irish stew, the smoked salmon on brown bread and all the other ingredients of the Irish pub experience that tourists - and locals - love.
It's unique. It's something to be proud of. It is, indeed, part of what we are.
But it's only a part. There's a lot more to us, especially these days. So there's something a little bit depressing about the way coming close to a pint of Guinness somehow became the key visual moment of the visits here by the Queen and the president.
It's a bit depressing because it demeans us in a way, even if it's only in a small way.
So I do have a problem with the way Guinness managed to stamp itself on the two state visits. And I'm not the only one.
People here have been ringing up the radio stations to make the same point, and The Irish Times ran a column about it last weekend.
The interesting thing is that no one seems to know exactly how Guinness managed it. Who decided, for example, that the Queen would visit the Guinness Storehouse, and that while there she and Prince Philip would be offered a pint?
Now it's true that the old Guinness Storehouse up at the brewery is the number one tourist attraction in Ireland. It's a wonderful museum which shows you the history of the black stuff and how it has been made over the centuries. And then at the end you go up to the Gravity Bar at the very top, the highest point in Dublin, with 360-degree panoramic windows.
It's a great spot and it's the most visited tourist attraction in the country, so it's arguable that the decision to bring the Queen there was justifiable.
However, what is not justifiable in my view is the way she was steered over to the bar and asked to watch and wait while a pint of Guinness was pulled for her. Then, as the cameras clicked and whirred, she was offered the pint, which was placed on the counter in front of her.
The perfectly pulled pint sat on the bar, with the glass turned exactly the right way so that the Guinness name on the glass was facing the cameras.
And folks, I know you are far too intelligent to think that that was an accident.
Now the Queen has been around the block often enough to know when she's being set up. So she declined to taste the black stuff.
And full marks to her for that. And anyway, she strikes me more as a gin and tonic kind of gal.
But that does not excuse the stroke pullers in Guinness and/or Bord Failte (the Irish Tourist Board) and/or whoever else was involved in attempting this stunt.
The fact is that as far as Guinness was concerned the cameras got the money shot of the Queen with a pint of Guinness on the bar in front of her. That shot has been on front pages and TV screens around the world. And it will live on the web forever and be used again and again in the future.
One media executive here put the value of the publicity to Guinness at over €20 million, but I have seen another professional estimate exceeded $100 million.
You can add up the value of the known exposure the shot has already got. Or you can try to assess what it would have cost Guinness in promotion to generate a similar level of visibility in media around the world.
On top of that, of course, the apparent stamp of approval from the Queen is priceless. So we're talking big bucks here.
We're talking about a benefit that is worth huge bucks for a multinational corporation, Diageo, which has its headquarters in London, not Dublin. It's the biggest drinks company in the world, and just a few of its many brands are Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff, Baileys and Guinness, (Guinness joined another drinks conglomerate to set up Diageo in the 1990s).
One thing is certain -- Guinness and its owner Diageo are well able to afford to pay for their own advertising and marketing. So why did the Irish state allow this private company to hijack the Queen's visit to Ireland for marketing purposes?
You think I'm being ridiculous about this? Well, how about this scenario, which was suggested by one caller to radio here. Wrigley's Chewing Gum, as you may know, was founded in Chicago back in the 1890s and is now a global brand. Let's say our President Mary McAleese is on a visit to the U.S. and while she's in Chicago they bring her to the Wrigley plant, unwrap a few sticks for her and suggest she starts chewing for the cameras. It doesn't seem appropriate, does it?
President Obama appeared to be a more willing victim. He obviously enjoys a Guinness and more luck to him for that.
And there was nothing inappropriate in him nipping into the bar in his ancestral village of Moneygall to meet the locals. The pictures of him relishing his pint of Guinness and holding it aloft have probably gone even further around the world than the shots of the Queen.
But I wonder if you noticed that the glass he was holding also had the Guinness name on it. Was that an accident?
Maybe ... but again, maybe not. I know that if you go into pubs around Ireland and ask for a pint of Guinness, sometimes you get it in a glass with the Guinness name stamped on it, but far more often it's in a plain glass with no writing on it.
Given that Obama's visit to Moneygall and to the bar was planned with meticulous care and attention to detail, it seems to me very likely that someone took the decision that when the president asked for pint it would be served to him in a Guinness glass.
But who? Whoever took that decision was making sure that when the pictures went around the world, it would be clear exactly what the president was drinking.
Again, I have no objection to the president enjoying my favorite drink. But I do have a problem with what appears to be the use of the state visits here by the president and the Queen to benefit a private company.
There was an element of management and manipulation going on that does little credit to this country. Being complicit in feeding the international stereotype of drink and the Irish does not do the Irish government any credit either. And besides, Guinness is not the only black stuff, you know. Ever hear of Murphys?
One last point. Just 24 hours after President Obama left Ireland, Guinness announced that it was cutting around 400 of its 1,700 jobs here, including a few dozen jobs in promotion and marketing.
After all the publicity they got during the visits, they probably feel they don't need to spend anything on marketing for a few years. Why would they bother, when the Irish state helps them to get global publicity for free.
Talk about a bitter aftertaste!