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Why wineries use sex, sometimes, to sell wine


Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. And in times like this, when consumers are loathe to spend money, it becomes more necessary than ever for wineries to figure out ways to encourage them to do so.

As a critic I’ve seen almost every way there is for wineries to attract attention to themselves. They’ll resort to oversized bottles so heavy you have to use two hands to pour from them. They’ll put more and more outrageous things on the label. Critters and various colorful modes of transit (trucks, wagons, bicycles) seem mercifully to be on the way out, but on the way in are larger point size for type, greater contrast of colors on the label, and more psychedelic use of gold. It’s the label as roadside billboard. Of course, bottles wrapped in tissue paper suggest that the wine inside must be very special indeed, as is the case with bottles that come in wooden boxes.

There is a cottage industry of packaging redesigners, to whom despairing marketing and sales people turn in roughly the same way a worried man might go to a psychic for consultation following a broken love affair or economic crisis. “[T]hey are hoping that some magic combination of prices, adjectives, fonts, type sizes, ink colors and placement on the page can coax diners into spending a little more money” is how the New York Times yesterday described how restaurateurs are trying to lure in cautious diners. The same can be said of wineries. Production people come up with their own “magic combinations.” If you can’t sell your Cabernet Sauvignon, what about a Malbec instead (grabbing onto Argentina’s coattails)? How about a cleverly-named proprietary bottling incorporating the owner’s children’s names, or something French-sounding?. There’s as much psychology involved in buying decisions as anything else. One restaurant cited in the Times article “not only excites the taste buds but goes to work on the mind.” This is crucial because flavor occurs, not in the taste buds, but in the brain, which is the seat of our sexual fantasies.

We humans, it turns out, are as irrational as invertebrates when it comes to choosing our delicacies. “[T]he psychology of the menu”, a complex interplay of graphic design, word and image association and subtle tricks played on the mind (e.g. cost sans dollar sign is said to be less threatening, so that 9 is friendlier than $9) represents the summitry of the restaurateur’s — and the P.R. agent’s — art. “The hidden persuaders,” in Vance Packard’s term (the title of his 1957 book), provided pre-”Mad Men” evidence of hidden tactics advertisers used to sell products. The ultimate in subliminal was said to be barely perceptible (to the naked eye) images of writhing nude human torsos in airbrushed ice cubes floating in cold, refreshing glasses of cognac and other spirits — images that the eye missed but that the reptilian id did not. There are wineries right here in Northern California that are not above mixing eye candy in with their message. The handsome young man from Livermore and the hot young woman from Napa Valley, both of whom are used in their company’s pictorial ads (and you know who they are), come to mind. What’s surprising is that the wine industry does not use sex appeal more than it does. Perhaps it’s a form of prudishness, or maybe the industry just feels it’s “above” pandering to that denominator. But if the suggestion of salaciousness can sell everything from Volvos


to coffee


to clothes


to iPods


it can certainly sell wine. I’m not suggesting that we start having young winemakers in bikini briefs and thongs appear in wine advertisements (although that could be pretty cool) and I certainly wouldn’t want to see old winemakers scantily clad. But the wine industry is stuffy and tight-cheeked when it comes to portraying its own image and it could have more fun and try new things. And by the way, a sincerely meant message from this blog:


  1. Steve:

    I’m embarrassed…you calling me out like that. 🙂

  2. if the shoe fits…

  3. steve stevens says:

    Good article by Ms. Kershaw.

    She mentions how menu design rules somewhat mirror the page layout guidelines used by newspapers and magazines.

    If restaurateurs paid a little more attention to layouts and how their lists are “engineered,” I’m convinced they’d get better results. A lot of wine lists still look like grocery lists on better paper.

  4. Part of the lack of “sexiness” on wine labels – and thus the reliance on the aforementioned pets & kids may also be the simple fact that it’s not likely to get past the label approval process. Same with ads themselves; there’s hardly a need to marry the joys of alcohol and sex together and something tells me the adverts you picture above would be a harder (no pun intended) sell to the that department at your magazine. Maybe I’m wrong.

    Or as the Santa I once saw on 48th and 12th once said, ” Anyone need a Ho, ho, ho?”

    Cheers, Steve! Continued success for the blog in 2010…

  5. Maybe it does sell product, but supposedly studies have shown that there is little brand retention and even less brand message retention when shown with boobs and butts and boinking apparatus. Anyway, wouldn’t it be more apt to say that it’s the shock factor and controversy surrounding the sexiness that end up doing the selling, and not the racy ads themselves?

    I agree with the idea of going out and doing new things, and look forward to the day a wine brand can pull off Calvin Klein-esque ads with the same aplomb, IF that’s who they are as a brand, if that’s who and what they are to the core, but really, you can only have so many companies using that kind of ploy (or any ploy) before they all start looking like a big bunch of followers. And, if that’s all they can come up with to sell their product because they don’t have a strong brand story that resonates AND differentiates, well, I guess we’ll be seeing more and more naked wineries and their ads. yeeehaaa!

    steve – just found your blog some weeks ago and appreciate your candor. very refreshing. you have another ardent reader here.

  6. Stephanie, thanks. Happy new year!

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