Matthew McConaughey turns bourbon ad man

Matthew McConaughey will also write and direct the advertisement spots.
Matthew McConaughey will also write and direct the advertisement spots.

LOS ANGELES • Matthew McConaughey took a big swig of bourbon and nestled deeper into a hotel penthouse sofa. Then, with zeal, he sat straight up and began sniffing the air like a bloodhound.

"They can smell it," he said in an ominous tone. "Millennials, and I know this for a fact, can smell solicitation. And it's a turn-off. The best ads are not solicitous." Add advertising maestro to the actor's resume.

McConaughey - Oscar winner, Texan, renowned bongo player - has signed a contract with Gruppo Campari, the premium spirits company, to serve as creative director for Wild Turkey bourbon.

The multi-year deal goes far beyond pitching a product, as he has recently done for car company Lincoln. This time, in addition to appearing on camera, he will write and direct the spots. He is also recording music for the campaign, which will be introduced next month.

He will appear in an online documentary about the history of the 161-year-old brand and will have a say in how Wild Turkey bottles are photographed for still advertisements. Moreover, Campari wants his take on developing new Wild Turkey products, with a Matthew McConaughey branded bourbon as a possibility, he said.

"I told them, 'I don't want to be just a face. I have ideas. I'm an idea man,'" the actor said. "The brand is a little dusty and in some ways I'm shaping a full-on reintroduction."

He continued: "The great news is that Wild Turkey hasn't changed in all these years - it's totally authentic. And that appeals to millennials. Because they can smell fake. Some manicured, bearded hipster soliciting them? No, thanks." He took another sip before adding, "And millennials don't want bourbon lite. These people want bourbon, brother!"

Campari seems thrilled - if a bit startled - by the attention McConaughey has been lavishing on Wild Turkey, which the company bought for US$575 million (S$770 million) in 2009 and where it has since poured US$100 million into operations upgrades.

"I did get more than I bargained for, but in a great way," Ms Melanie Batchelor, vice-president for global spirits, said by telephone from Campari offices in Italy. "I have been completely overwhelmed with his level of commitment."

The celebrity endorsement has been part of Madison Avenue's playbook since at least the 1940s, when film stars were paid to promote cigarettes. But only in the last decade have Hollywood A-listers been willing to let a consumer brand define them to the same degree as a movie role. McConaughey, for instance, is now just as famous (or more) for his Lincoln car commercials as for Dallas Buyers Club (2013), the film that won him the 2014 Academy Award for Best Actor.

Yet there are downsides to advertisement work. McConaughey's eccentric Lincoln ads have been mocked by Saturday Night Live and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Stars invariably overlook the risks because the advertising partnerships, unlike most movie roles these days, can bring enormous pay cheques. Deals such as the one McConaughey made with Wild Turkey are typically worth tens of millions of dollars, talent agents say.

"I've always been interested in the art of the sell," McConaughey said, noting that he interned as a college student at an Austin, Texas, advertising agency, where he worked on a Don't Mess With Texas commercial.

After being hurt by distillery underinvestment in the 1980s and the vodka boom of the 1990s, bourbon has experienced blistering growth over the last decade, as the Mad Men and classic cocktail crazes helped consumers rediscover brands such as Pappy Van Winkle and Old Crow. For the fiscal first quarter, which ended in March, domestic sales of Wild Turkey rose 7.6 per cent from the same period a year earlier.

But Campari wants McConaughey to supercharge Wild Turkey sales in the United States and overseas. "Older, particularly Southern, gentlemen have always loved the brand, but we need to close the gap between our perceived quality and our actual quality," Ms Batchelor said. In other words, many people see Wild Turkey as a downscale choice and Campari wants to change that.

The new marketing campaign will not "suddenly get all hoity-toity and alienate our core drinkers," McConaughey said. Instead, it will emphasise that "this drink is unapologetically itself, and if you're living your life that way as well, then Wild Turkey will probably find you."

The official tag line for the campaign is "It'll Find You". "It's going to be fun and wild, but the opposite of solicitous," the actor said, pouring himself another drink. "So-lic-it," he added, dragging out the syllables and clinking the ice in his glass. "We're not gonna go that route."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2016, with the headline 'Matthew McConaughey turns bourbon ad man'. Print Edition | Subscribe