champale

No one was a wino before the 50s, at least not in the sense that the term connotes. People had been drinking wine problematically for millennia, but the Wino was a distinctly American invention. Derelict, male, homeless, and almost always black, the wino was born alongside Ernest and Julio Gallo’s Thunderbird, a cheap, 17.5% ABV concoction that was part prison wine, part hallucinogen, part battery acid. I—I know I speak in fun hyperbole here, but Thunderbird is a genuine affront to human decency, and its marketers should be ashamed.

You ever had Thunderbird, or any other fortified wine? You can feel your insides rotting. Literally, not figuratively. A guy might call well bourbon “gut rot,” but after a bottle of MD 20/20 you can honestly feel your organs melt and swish together. Thunderbird is clear in the bottle, but drinking it turns your tongue blue. That is what happens right before you die.

You might wonder why a hobo would drink it, even. It tastes significantly worse than even very bad hard liquor, and while a flask of vodka might cost a little more, the difference in ABV should make up for the price, drunkwise.

There are lots of potential answers to this question. The first is that hard liquor sales are usually more regulated than wine sales, and so stores in destitute areas might not have been able to legally carry vodka. But that just segues into the real heart of this matter—the Gallo company knew that there was a “demand” among the homeless for a cheap drink that packed more punch than beer. And so they devised and marketed and sold a drink specifically to the homeless, specifically to worsen their misery.

Enter Thunderbird, and the advent of the wino. It was the first product advertised specifically to black Americans. And, like every other product that has notably been advertised towards disadvantaged groups, the ads were beyond fraught, beyond offensive. Like—I watch a lot of old commercials on youtube. The best are when someone captured all the commercial breaks from an hour or two of programming. These are glimpses of the zeitgeist, man, a raw feed into exactly what people were thinking and feeling at a certain time and place. Because, see, we think and feel whatever we’re being sold.

Dig this:

The only commercial to feature black people is one about how you can mix grapefruit juice with Thunderbird as a way of making it more palatable. All the other ads are for pools or Ronco Record Vaults—you know, stuff only white people use.

That’s offensive. But the offensiveness comes from the fact that the advertisement failed. If its demographic reach was successfully cloaked or otherwise diffuse, it wouldn’t offend me at all. As with every other aspect of contemporary American life, success in advertising is self-validating. If an audience can tell that an advertisement is trying to convince a particular demographic to consume its product, the advertising will be dismissed as ineffective or manipulative. If it’s aimed toward a minority demographic, it might even get called racist. But that only happens if it fails. If it’s done right, then that demographic is convinced that they really wanted the product all along, that it’s just slaking a thirst they’d had for years but didn’t even know about it, then the ad’s successful and no one cares how much it adds to our collective misery.

When your product is destitution, your ads will never not be offensive. When your product apes a hyper-superficial signifier of success, the stakes get weirder.

Check this out:

What the hell, right? White country club couple begins the ad by doing the things that rich, empowered people do. Only for some reason they drink Champale instead of actual champagne. And then at the end they are almost literally bracketed by a pair of black couples who are also in country club attire, also living a weird malternative-soaked parody of the jet set life. I’m too creeped out to be offended.

You don’t have to be a hyper-sensitive English major type to glean some disturbing subtext here. The beer’s tagline was “live a little on very little,” and its early print campaign focused on how high-class drinking Champale would make you appear, even though it’s totally not expensive:

c5

So what are we dealing with here? Like, the cubic zirconia of alcohol? Yes, kinda. It makes the explicit promise of providing access to an exclusive class even if you don’t possess the requisite elements for entering that class (white skin, money, fancy tennis racket, a soulless whore of a wife, etc). This—this doesn’t really differ from any type commercial aimed toward any disempowered group.

The difference between an offensive ad and a regular one is found in whether or not the ad makes an empty promise of empowerment, and whether or not we’re all too poisoned by capitalism to realize that you can’t gain agency by consuming the right stuff. The overt racial overtones of these ads is what makes them offensive, simply because it makes the ad’s promise of empowerment seem all the more ridiculous.

Anyhow, okay–the drink itself is surprisingly pretty okay. Not just a regular malternative–you can pick up definite nodes of champagne yeast, along with big nodes of artificial grape flavoring that taste not like dimetapp but like actual grape, only artificial.

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