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Why Stoli’s protestations are not compelling

Timothy Kincaid

August 1st, 2013

SPI Stoli

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.

Russian Stoli

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.

Comments

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iDavid
August 1st, 2013 | LINK

Timothy, excellent take on this subject. I agree.
You used CPI a few times towards the end. Did you mean to do that? I think you meant SPI.

TomTallis
August 2nd, 2013 | LINK

Also did you mean Balkans or Baltic States.

As for Austria, I’m married to an Austrian and I intend to make a few contacts there to see what we can do about Kaznacheyskaya.

Timothy Kincaid
August 2nd, 2013 | LINK

iDavid and TomTallis,

Thank you for the corrections. Fixed

Jay
August 2nd, 2013 | LINK

Excellent analysis. Thanks. I often strongly disagree with Timothy Kincaid, but on this, I completely agree and am grateful for the detailed information he provides.

RobNYNY1957
August 2nd, 2013 | LINK

I can see how a boycott of Stoli will have an effect on SPI and even Latvia, but I’m not sure what effect it could possibly have on Russia. Wasn’t that the purpose of the boycott?

Priya Lynn
August 2nd, 2013 | LINK

Timothy said “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.”.

The christian mingle ads tell prospective clients to “find god’s match for you” by using their service. This makes me angry because its so misleading. Do you christians here also feel that its unreasonable for christian mingle to claim they’re going to “find god’s match for you.”? Do believers also find that incredibly presumptuous?

Rob
August 2nd, 2013 | LINK

Timothy, it might be good to also mention that all of the products used to make Stoli are all produced and purchased from Russia. That might make people like RobNYNY1957 understand how that affects Russia. The purchase of grains is a direct benefit to Russia, where the government owns a portion of the farms, a small portion, but a portion non the less, which means revenue to the government. They also subsidize these farms with government monies and take payment for these subsidies in the form of product. That product gets sold Nd benefits the government coffers. Very few people are talking about that fact while discussing the issue. I’m also glad you brought up Latvia, as I commented on the fact that it wasn’t much better to claim Latvian ownership due to past issues they have had with the lgbt communities. The only difference is that in Latvia most of that animus is on the citizenry, not the government. It isn’t illegal to be gay there, single gay people can adopt, but not same sex couples. Marriage is limited to opposite sex only, so there is a little animus by the government, but less so than there was. But still, it isn’t a much better situation given their immediate past as a country.

DN
August 2nd, 2013 | LINK

Same here, Jay. I barely even come over here anymore, but this time Timothy nailed it. For my money, it was especially the part about the difference between supporting a group and advertising to it.

For any fans of the show, Commmunity, there’s an episode where Chevy Chase’s homophobic character learns that the moist towelette company he owns has become a gay icon (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eN1trwnxBhU – trust me, this video is hilarious).

Chase’s character initially reacts with horror, but a few minutes later, he prances into the room wearing a gay-supportive t-shirt and talking about how great gay people are.

One character remarks on how nice it is that he’s supporting the gay community… and Joel McHale’s character goes:

“Oh please, he’s not supporting the gay community – they’re supporting him. If Mexicans were buying his wipes, he’d have ridden in on a donkey.”

J. Peron
August 2nd, 2013 | LINK

Taco Bell sells a “Mexican Pizza.” Does that mean if Mexico acts badly that Taco Bell should be boycotted?

RobNYNY1957
August 3rd, 2013 | LINK

Russia’s largest wheat exports are to Egypt. It would make much more sense to boycott Egyptian products and tourism that a Luxembourg/Latvian vodka that happens to have a Russian name.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-06-25/russia-monthly-grain-exports-seen-lower-on-egypt-economy.html

RobNYNY1957
August 3rd, 2013 | LINK

“The only difference is that in Latvia … .”

No, the only difference is that Latvia is a different country. Punishing Latvia is not going to change Putin and the RO Church.

RobNYNY1957
August 3rd, 2013 | LINK

I can see the headlines now: A Luxembourg/Latvian distillery reduces somewhat the amount of grain it buys from Russia. GAY RIGHT EXPLODE!

tim
August 3rd, 2013 | LINK

When Dan Savage and Tim Kincaid leave their respective gayborhoods and spend a year in Russia – then maybe I’ll care about their opinion in this matter.

But this so called boycott is not helping anyone. Including gay men and women in Russia.

Timothy Kincaid
August 3rd, 2013 | LINK

How very odd… I never knew that Historic Filipinotown is a gayborhood. I wonder if my neighbors know that.

Kevin
August 4th, 2013 | LINK

I think your strongest argument is that Stoli is making no commitment to educate the Russian public or advocate on gays’ behalf before Putin.

Carl
August 6th, 2013 | LINK

As much as I am Appalled by the Actions of the Government of Russia, I also am appalled by Many Things our Own Government Does… Am I to be Held Accountable? As a Bar Owner, and a Proud, Married Gay Man, I am Very Concerned about this and have been working to find out the Whole Truth… In the Meantime I would like to Point Out that Russia is one of the Worlds Largest Producers of Oil, and it is Traded on the World Market which means it is in OUR CARS. So, How Many Here are ready to give up their Gasoline? Also anyone reading this on a Computer or Cell Phone, You Probably are holding a Product Made in China, or containing a LOT of Chinese made parts, which puts Gays in Slave Labor Camps and Denies that AIDS is in their Country. So… How many are going to Pledge not to buy a New I-Phone, or any other Device made this way? These are Real Issues, and Deserve REAL Discussions and Work, not just Sound Bites or Media Events on either side.

Timothy Kincaid
August 6th, 2013 | LINK

Carl,

You might wish to Reconsider your unique and Individualized use of Capital LETTERS as it Makes your comments difficult to Read.

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