About That New Smirnoff Vodka Ad

Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Magazine

As Rahm Emanuel famously put it, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste." So the ad execs at 72andSunny had an idea for client Smirnoff Vodka: "Made in America. But we'd be happy to talk about our ties to Russia under oath." The reference, of course, was to President Donald Trump saying he was willing to testify under oath regarding the Russia/Comey investigation.

Apparently it was Kate Kosturski who first captured the image on Twitter (Kosturski/@librarian_kate):

Smirnoff's actual ties to Russia ended during the Bolshevik revolution. Vladimir Smirnov (son of founder Pyotr Smirnov) ultimately fled to Nice, France. In need of money, he placed an ad in a local paper offering the family name and vodka recipe for a price. Businessman (and fellow Russian emigre) Rudolf Kunett purchased those rights and in 1934 built America's first commercial vodka distillery—Smirnoff in Bethel, Connecticut. But Americans weren't quite ready for that odorless, flavorless spirit so the factory only managed to sell 4,000 cases in its first years. John Martin of Heublein then acquired Smirnoff in 1939 for $14,000. A few years later he helped invent the Moscow Mule—vodka, ginger beer, lime, ice, served in a copper mug.

Martin claimed it was a march in New York City in June 1950 that catapulted Smirnoff. As he later related to the Hartford Times, "The bartenders had a big parade down Fifth Ave. and they had a big banner that read ‘Down with the Moscow Mule—We Don't Need Smirnoff Vodka.' It made page one of the New York Daily News, the whole page. Our people came rushing in to me. ‘What are we going to do about this,' they wanted to know. Do! It was great. All the people who saw the sign were rushing into the bars to try the drink."

The brand's first famous tag line was "Smirnoff Leaves You Breathless." (The idea was no one could tell you'd been drinking.) It had A-list celebrity endorsements. But in the 1970s, Smirnoff took a dive. As Bar Rescue‘s Jon Taffer once told me, Smirnoff "was a dirty name. It was cheap." The joke was the water came from the Detroit River. Under Diageo, the brand has rebounded—at 9 million cases per year, it is the top-selling brand of vodka in the United States.

In a blind taste test of 21 luxury and craft vodkas organized by the New York Times, the unanimous winner was Smirnoff. Not that you'd ever hear someone at a club or trendy bar order a Smirnoff and Soda. It's still considered rail. But it's the sort of counterargument I'd make—I like it precisely because it's not a fancy hipster vodka. In fact, one of my favorite vodka ad campaigns featured Adam Scott and Alison Brie making that very case.

The current Smirnoff ad is clever, but it's not the best—that would be Absolut. And there's definitely worse:

Remember when Effen Vodka came up with "Nothing warms me up like Effen by the fire"? Or the Svedka porn-robot campaign? And let's not forget value-brand Wodka, which placed a billboard along West Side Highway in Manhattan. It featured two dogs, one with a Santa hat and the other wearing a yarmulke. The tag line: CHRISTMAS QUALITY, HANUKKAH PRICING.