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Posts for August, 2013

The pathetic Stoli Guy fiasco

Timothy Kincaid

August 14th, 2013

Two weeks ago I discussed why it is that I believe that SPI Group, the makers of Stolichnaya Vodka (Stoli) outside of Russia, had badly bungled the public relations surrounding the Russian vodka boycott.

It’s actually worse than I knew at the time.

One of the points of defense raised by SPI as evidence of their support for the gay community was a beauty contest called Stoli Guy: (Queerty)

Stoli is very proud of its current exclusive national partnership with Gaycities.com and Queerty.com in search of the Most Original Stoli Guy. This is a fantastic program that started as a local initiative in Colorado and became a national platform.

I shrugged this off as a marketing ploy to attract gay revelers to choose Stoli vodka. It’s barely that.

Look closely at what Stoli offers the winners: (StoliGuy)

    What will the 13 local winners receive?

  • The chance to become Stoli’s local LGBT Ambassador.
  • A trip to New York City, transportation and accommodations courtesy of GayCities.
  • Professional photoshoot session.
  • Profile featured on Queerty.
  • $100 gift certificate from Andrew Christian.
    What will the national winner receive?

  • The chance to become Stoli’s national LGBT Ambassador.
  • Trip to Los Angeles, California to appear as an honorary Andrew Christian model with a featured role in an Andrew Christian video and solo photoshoot with an official Andrew Christian photographer.
  • Exclusive interview and photos published on Queerty.
  • $500 gift certificate from Andrew Christian.
  • Three night stay at Island House Key West. (travel not included)

It looks like Andrew Christian might be forking out some cash (or, at least, free product) and GayCities might be buying a plane ticket, but what is Stoli contributing? Are they really only offering the chance to be an ambassador, aka the guy who goes around bar to bar and says, “Hey, have you tried Stoli Passionfruit? Here’s a discount ticket for your next Stoli drink!”

Not exactly a sponsorship that makes me want to extol their astonishing support.

But Stoli has seen an opportunity to use the Stoli Guy competition to burnish their image. Recognizing that Stoli Guy Night is more likely at this point to drive off a bar’s customers, Queerty and Stoli came up with a great idea. They’ll bribe gay customers to show up:

In lieu of the national Stoli boycott by some in the LGBT community, GayCities has convinced SPI (Stoli’s parent company) to donate $5 for each person whom RSVP’s and attends The Most Original Stoli Guy Live in San Francisco, San Diego, Dallas and D.C. The participating charities include local chapters of Equality CA, Equality Texas and the HRC, all whom will be present at the events to accept the donation. GayCities is currently in discussions with SPI to select an international beneficiary that works directly in affecting change for LGBTs in Russia. The organization will be revealed live at The Most Original Stoli Guy finale, which GayCities will stream live from NYC this September.

Seriously. Five dollars.

Oh, and to make it even more exciting, if you watch the live stream of the Most Original Stoli Guy finale in September, they’ll release the name of the lucky winning organization in Russia chosen to get some part of that five dollars. Well I’m so excited I nearly wet myself.

But if you think that is perhaps the saddest attempt to fix a PR problem you’ve seen in weeks, you haven’t seen this: (Blade)

Three LGBT advocacy groups have disputed claims they will accept money from Stoli raised at events across the country.

“The Human Rights Campaign is not participating in the Most Original Stoli Guy events and is not accepting any donations related to these events or otherwise from Stoli,” Cole-Schwartz said. “The press release indicating our participation was flat out wrong and the event organizers have unfortunately not provided any information to substantiate their claim.”

The Dallas Voice reported that Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said his organization does not have any relationship with Stoli, and would not accept any donations from the vodka brand. Joe.My.God noted an Equality California spokesperson said the group did not respond to Raymundo who sent the press release that noted their participation in the San Francisco and San Diego events that are scheduled to take place later on Wednesday and on Friday.

It hasn’t been a good month for Stoli.

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.

Boycott of Russian Vodka Spreads

Jim Burroway

July 26th, 2013

Buzzfeed on Monday published a photo essay titled “36 Photos from Russia that Everyone Needs to See,” which depicts the violence that broke out during St. Petersburg’s gay pride march last month. That violence took place on the very day that President Vladimir Putin signed a law which effectively bans all advocacy by or on behalf of LGBT people. Dan Savage finally decided that enough was enough. Six months from now, Russia will be hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics on Sochi, with many calling for a boycott. Dan Savage reviewed the pros and cons of boycotting the Olympics and proposed an alternative:

If there isn’t a boycott—if gay and pro-gay athletes compete at the Olympics in Sochi this winter—there must be a protest during the Sochi Olympics that is as powerful and indelible as Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s protest during the Mexico City Olympics. It should happen on the medal stand while the world watches.

But boycott or no boycott there is something we can do right here, right now, in Seattle and other US cities to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: DUMP RUSSIAN VODKA.

Here is a list of Russian vodkas currently available in the US: Dovgan, Gold Symphony, Standart, Hrenovuha, Kauffman, Kubanskaya, Moskovskaya, Narodnaya, Pyatizvyozdnaya, Putinka, Rodnik, Ruskova, Russian Standard, Shustov, Starka, Stolnaya, Youri Dolgoruki. The two best known Russian vodkas? Russian Standard and Stolichnaya.

That was Wednesday. It only took Stolichnaya’s CEO, Val Mendeleev, a day to respond with “an open letter to the LGBT community”:

Letter from Stoli. Click to enlarge.

The recent dreadful actions taken by the Russian Government limiting the rights of the LGBT community and the passionate reaction of the community have prompted me to write this letter to you.

I want to stress that Stoli formly opposes such attitude and actions. Indeed, as a company that encourages transparent and fairness, we are upset and angry. Stolichnaya Vodka has always been, and continues to be a fervent supporter and friend to the LGBT community. We also thank the community for having adopted Stoli as their vodka of preference.

In the US, the brand’s commitment to the LGBT community has been ongoing for years. Among the best examples, I can cite the series produced by Stoli in 2006 called “Be Real: Stories from Queer America” which featured short documentaries on real life stories depicting the challenges and accomplishments of the LGBT community in the United States.

Stoli is very proud of the current exclusive national partnership with Gaycities.comand Queerty.com in search of the Most Original Stoli Guy. .. Previous national initiatives included serving as the official vodka of the Miami Gay Pride Week as well as ongoing events with focus on Pride month.

…This letter also gives me the opportunity to clear some of the confusion surrounding the Stolichnaya brand, based on facts found online that often inaccurately link our company to the Russian Government. The Russian government has no ownership interest over the Stoli brand that is privately owned by SPI Group, headquartered in Luxembourg in the heart of Western Europe…

(Update: Queerty, perhaps because of their entangling alliance with Stoli, has been practicing radio silence where the boycott is concerned, except to post Stoli’s open letter.)

Savage countered:

For the record: Regardless of where SPI Group’s corporate offices are located, the company is owned by Yuri Scheffler, one of the 100 richest men in Russia. SPI is a Russian corporation, Stoli is a Russian vodka. And while it’s nice that SPI is willing to market to homos who are lucky enough to live in Austria, the US, and South Africa, what has SPI done in Russia? The group has sponsored gay pride events in Vienna and Miami. That’s nice. But have they sponsored gay pride events in Moscow or St. Petersburg? Val says that Stoli is upset and angry. That’s nice. So has Stoli said anything to the Russian authorities? Has Yuri Scheffler expressed his anger in an open letter to Vladimir Putin? Did the SPI Group speak the fuck up before the Russian government passed a law that made it a crime to be openly gay and a crime to publicly support someone who is openly gay? Frankly I’m not interested in Stoli’s marketing efforts in the West. I’m interested in what this Russian-owned company is doing in Russia. And from this letter it’s clear they’ve done and they only plan on doing squat.

But Scott Shackford at Reason posted a counter argument. He noted that there is a battle going on between Scheffler and Russia, which is trying to nationalize the company, which seized the internal brands and nationalized them in 2001.

There is a big, nasty battle between Russia and the private Stolichnaya company and its owner, Yuri Scheffler…. t doesn’t take that much research to see how difficult a position Scheffler is in. Russia wants his company. This story from The Guardian from 2002 makes it very clear that Scheffler is no friend of Putin’s … Scheffler himself is wanted for “questioning” for allegedly threatening the director of the parts of the Russian company that were renationalized.

What’s sad about this effort is that if Russia succeeds in getting its hands back on Stoli, then a boycott actually makes sense. But the consequence will be that a powerful businessman who does support the gay community will lose his company. Boycotting Stoli now is a very bad idea. Scheffler is an ally who the gay and lesbian community needs to work with, not alienate. From a Western perspective it may be hard to realize that an incredibly rich person like Scheffler has the potential to be a victim of Russia’s authoritarian regime like its gay citizens or members of Pussy Riot, but it’s extremely important not to look at the nature of power and influence there the way we do here.

Nevertheless, the Russian vodka boycott — which goes beyond Stolichnaya, although Stoli is the biggest, most well-known brand — is spreading like wildfire. At least two bars in the Castro have pulled Russian vodka from their shelves. Seven Halsted-area bars in Chicago have stopped selling Russian booze, as have bars in West HollywoodVancouver, Toronto, London, and San Diego. Dallas-area bars are still considering whether to join, but The Dallas Voice reports that, contrary to Stoli’s letter Thursday, the company had already decided to “pull out of the gay market“:

(Bar owner Howard) Okon said Razzle Dazzle Dallas, the city’s June LGBT Pride Month celebration, was hit hard earlier this year when Stoli representatives said they wouldn’t sponsor the event, after they’ve been the major liquor sponsor the past two years. Okon, who was in charge of sponsorships for Razzle Dazzle, said the company told him they were realigning their outreach and pulling out of the gay market.