August 1st, 2013
Last week Val Mendeleev, the CEO of SPI Group, the makers of Stolichnaya Vodka (Stoli) outside of Russia issued an impassioned plea that the gay community not boycott Stoli. He insisted that Stoli was a supporter of the community and not responsible for the “recent dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government”. His appeal has been a colossal flop, and here are some of the reasons why.
First, Mendeleev confuses advertising with alliance. He lists, in Stoli’s defense, a number of sponsorships that Stoli has made recently of gay events and groups.
That does not impress us much anymore. While it truly would have been an act of courage – one deserving of loyalty – to sponsor gay pride events in 1993 or even to advertise directly to the gay community in 1983, there no longer is a social, political, or economic price to be paid for such action.
Placing your brand before one of the most influential trend-setters (when it comes to high end spirits) has no correlation with support. It’s marketing. Stoli doesn’t automatically deserve much more appreciation for target-marketing to me than does Christian Mingle for placing their advertising on television shows that I watch.
Secondly, Mendeleev demonstrates a lack of awareness of global attitudes impacting gay people. He insists that Stoli is not really all Russian, but really kinda more Latvian, you know. Which is a bit like insisting that your political alliance is not to Stalin, but to Stalin’s little brother.
Announcing that one of your main production facilities is in Riga, Latvia, does little to alleviate my concerns. Rather, it demands an explanation of what Stoli did in 2006 when local attendees at a Riga pro-gay worship service were pelted with feces or in 2009 when the Riga city counsel voted to ban Gay Pride. Did Stoli object?
Third, Mendeleev demonstrated a sense of separateness and otherness. Stoli fully supports and endorses “your objectives” in fight this vile situation. But it isn’t really their objectives. They passionately stand on your side, but their role is cheer-leader, not advocate.
Mendeleev did not offer to join forces in a campaign to educate the public about the abuse of gay people in Russia. They did not promise to fight for better treatment in the Baltic States. They did not own the problem in any way. Rather, they were offended that we were insufficiently grateful for their nominal support.
Finally, the most important reason why Mendeleev’s argument is not compelling, the strongest reason why I have little sympathy for SPI group, is that they are trying to have it both ways.
Stoli banks its image on linkage to Russia. For decades Stoli has used imagery and advertising to portray their product as traditional Russian vodka. And while they may insist that they are not the same as the Stolichnaya Vodka made in Russia, their bottling is as close to that of the “other” Stoli as it can get.
And it was successful. In fact, a measure of that success is that while Latvia was attacking gay people, it did not immediately result in a Stoli boycott. “Stoli” equaled “Russian”.
And that’s the tricky thing. Adopting and presenting a connection to the traditions of Russia – furry hats, icy weather, and the pure vodka that burns its way down your throat staving off the Siberian cold – means that you build a connection to the traditions of Russia – homophobia, human rights violations, and oppression.
And, as yet, SPI Group is not willing to give up that connection. They want to be not-Russian in the eyes of the LGBT community, but they still want to extol the virtues of Mother Russia – when we aren’t looking.
Yes, they’ve put a statement on the Stoli webpage. Yes, they have assured us that they are appalled. And I do not doubt that Mendeleev and the corporate structure at SPI Group are not personally in favor of the Russian legislation that essentially makes being openly gay a crime.
And yet, the SPI Group website has this to say about another of their products, Kaznacheyskaya Vodka:
Kaznacheyskaya is a quality brand created for the Russian market, designed to evoke a sense of national status. But since its launch in 2003 it has also proved to be a hit in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Austria.
Kaznacheyskaya is all about pride in Russia. The early 19th century was a golden era for Russian vodka when quality, solidity and strong character could all be taken for granted.
Having tied themselves to pride in Russia, SPI Group now owns it.
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