The Changing Role of Bartenders in Ads

He’s not the old Jake we used to know

In 1956, intrepid reporter Hal Boyle of the Associated Press asked drinkers everywhere for a small favor: show a little love for the barkeep. “If you have sent flowers to your mother and tossed a box of kennel krunch to the dog,” Boyle wrote, “show your appreciation to the guy who has given you some of the best beers of his life—your favorite bartender.”

Hear, hear. Much like the waitress, the redcap and the doorman, the local bartender is one of those guys too easily taken for granted—much as we’d be totally screwed without him. Sounds like a great hook for an advertisement, right? It sure is, as the ads here demonstrate in crisp, refreshing color. Standing behind the taps wearing a bar towel and a smile, the mixologist is the perfect messenger for any liquor brand, be it Canadian Club in 1964 or Jose Cuervo today.

But look more closely, and you’ll see that while the customer’s still on the stool and the barkeep’s still pouring, the roles of the two have traded places.

“In 1964, the focus was on the bartender—the impeccable service guy who wants to pour you a drink,” observed veteran beverage marketer Arthur Shapiro. “But when you get to 2014, the focus is on you, the drinker, and your story. That’s a different orientation. Spirits companies have changed the way they portray the interaction.”

The change was a long time coming. As Shapiro explains, 50 years ago the local barman was subservient, a friendly but hapless fellow onto whose shoulders you heaped your troubles as you nursed a scotch. “People then were more likely to drink by themselves and converse with the bartender,” he said. And what the bartender said back to you (at least according to this 1964 ad) was limited to vapid talk about sports scores and trivia. In sum, Canadian Club’s ad comes off as an encouraging pat on the head for a guy whose job is to listen to your boring-ass stories. (“If customers would just shut up about their troubles for a while,” one beaten-down barkeep confessed to Boyle in 1956, “life would be a dream.”)

How different a night at the bar is in this 2014 Cuervo ad. Gone is the acquiescent hireling in his clip-on tie, replaced by a tattooed, no-bullshit Kiefer Sutherland. More important, Sutherland doesn’t look like he’s there to watch you cry in your beer. “You know that if you’re boring, he’s going to walk down the bar and not listen to you,” Shapiro said. As the tagline suggests, the bartender will still listen to your story—but it had better be a good one.

“What they’re portraying here,” Shapiro added, “is a reality that stands for individualism, ruggedness and masculinity”—three things that attach nicely to the liquor brand, too. As in the 1964 ad, we still have a strong case for appreciating the bartender. But this time around, we’re respecting him, too.