Updated: Mar 11, 2022
Another memory-meme from a frolic in the ad world
With the current freeze-out of all things Russian, it occurred to me to wonder about my once-upon-a-time almost-contribution to what would be Russki product purgatory: Moichev Vodka.
My ad campaign to launch that vodka, back in the day, was meant to be my ticket to advertising immortality.
In the 1980s, Moichev Vodka was new to the Canadian market, with its distinctive Russian name, Cyrillic-reminiscent label typeface. They were shopping for a ring-a-ding launch, and it was my agency's client.
I was at a pinnacle in my fraught ad-world career: freshly-appointed VP-Creative Director at the first-ever Canadian branch of a storied US ad firm. Only the second female advertising creative director in the whole country. It was a pinnacle that would end in a deep plunge into litigious advert-world hell...But that's another story. One in which Moichev Vodka played no part.
I already had one twitchy booze client to manage. Karl-Heinz --not his real name, which I've forgotten-- had arrived in Canada with a new franchise for Henninger Beer, an ancient Frankfurt brew.
Finding a campaign slogan was a challenge. "Henninger: Germany's non-stop favourite lager, since 1655...Now, Canada's favourite." Wait a sec: did Hitler love it, too?... "Henninger. The first German brewery to use beer cans. Now Canadians can, too." Um...
Karl-Heinz was getting restive. We took him and his large team for a ritzy Yorkville lunch. When the waitress asked for our drinks order, "I'll haff a Henninger, please," Karl-Heinz said.
"Right, one Heineken," she said.
"Nein Heineken. Henninger," he said.
She looked puzzled. "Hen-ninger? I'm sorry, sir, we don't have Henninger."
"Iff you don't have Henninger," Karl-Heinz huffed, "I vill haff your Heineken."
Karl-Heinz's brand chief said, "I'll have a Henninger. But if you don't have Henninger I'll have a Labbatt's."
Said his next-in-command, "I'll have a Henninger, but if you don't have Henninger, I'll have a Molson's Blue."
One by one, all the Henninger underlings followed suit. "I'll have a Henninger, but if you don't have Henninger, I'll have a ... "
Needless to say, we from the agency did the same in turn. When my turn came, I reluctantly allowed that if they didn't have Henninger, I'd make do with gin and tonic.
But campaign ideas for Karl-Heinz's Henninger continued to be a struggle. Moichev Vodka, however, looked to be a breeze. It was pure heritage, one with no problematic backstories.
I booked a serious interview with the Moichev brand-manager, a rumpled guy past his prime, stuck overlong at low brand-management level. To exude some evidence of with-itness, he occasionlly wore a rumpled gray suit-shirt instead of a rumpled white one.
"What does Moichev mean?" I asked him.
"It means, like, the ballet," he said. "You know, the Moichev Ballet."
"I think," I murmured, feigning uncertainty, "I think that may be the Bolshoi Ballet...?"
"Oh yeah," he said. "Then it's that other Russian dance bunch. That kind of folk troupe with a lot of guys. The Moichev Dancers."
"Er...I could be wrong but isn't that the Moiseyev Dancers? I mean, who can tell with these crazy Russki names? They all sound the same," I quipped, one hip superior free-world anglo to another.
"You got that right," he snickered. "I guess it doesn't mean anything. It just sounds Russian."
We enjoyed a cozy free-world snigger over our shared values and the patent inferiority of non-English speaking races, and off he slouched. Leaving me smacking myself in the head, wishing it were his.
It was a huge creative headache. How the hell to differentiate one brand of tasteless colourless booze from another?
Then I had a brainwave: Write a super hip proto-modern campaign. Use the dialogue. My actual dialogue with the brand manager. Make it a dialogue with the new super-cool face of the brand: A dude we would call "The Man From Moichev." A brilliant take on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., megahit megacool spy series, which --paradoxically, today-- had an American and a Russian undercover agent battling hand in hand, against an evil syndicate that craved world domination.
We'd even get the cute one, David McCallum, who played Russki Agent Illya, to be our Man From Moichev.
Majorly pumped, I honed the copy:
"What," we asked The Man From Moichev, "does Moichev mean?"
"It means the ballet. The Moichev Ballet," he said.
"But that's the Bolshoi Ballet," we said.
"Then it means the dance troupe. The Moichev Dancers," he said.
"That's the Moiseyev Dancers," we said.
"Then Moichev means nothing," said The Man From Moichev."It tastes like nothing, too. But, it sure does something fantastic for your drink."
Here, The Man From Moichev, played by dishy David McCallum in a black velvet blazer, with a bodacious girl agent tonguing his ear, raises his Moichev martini to camera, from a cocktail trolley with a mouthwatering array of Moichev-based booze-ups.
My head exploded with stars. This would be so cool, so retro-futuro, so insanely hip... visions floated of accolades, awards, my place in ad history...
My agency account exec was doubtful. So was the Moichev brand manager.
I tap-danced them through the ineffable, mega-selling cool of it. Adorable Illya as The Man From Moichev -- a great marketing tie-in, and hey, Illya is a veritable stand-in for the brand man himself. The air-chilled irony, the uniqueness....Moichev, the new emblem of total hip...It would be the making of the brand. Of the agency, yes; but more than anything, the making of the brand-man, the rebel genius who could see high, high above crippling convention.
My agency account man got so pumped that he insisted we crack a virgin bottle of Moichev, to toast our incandescent future.
The Moichev did taste like nothing. But it sure did something fantastic for the brand man's mood. He went winging out the door. We had an appointment to present to his boss, the Moichev big chief himself, the very next day.
So here we are, in my custom-decorated white leather office, with the Moichev Big Chief, a large po-faced Brit with a Long John Silver mustache.
All a-twinkle, I go into my pitch...The challenge of so many vodka brands, of making a new one punch above the crowd. Storming the market not with another marketing shout, but a brilliant whisper...catching the mood of the times, with the irony, the laid-backness, originality, post-modern wit...a trend-setter campaign for a trend-setter brand.
Now, I present the script. I'm adorable. I perform me, then an Illya-accented Moichev Man. The faces of the Moichev brand guy and my account man are aglow with glory.
Long John Silver's face is a cipher, but when I'm done, he asks to see the copy.
He reads it through. Then, "This you?" he says, looking up at his brand manager.
"Uh-huh," says the brand man, snickering modestly, like Illya with an autograph-seeker.
"Makes you sound like a fucken idiot," Long John Silver says.
When they leave, together, there is a definite Don't call me I'll call you feeling in the air.
The next time we saw a bottle of Moichev, some months later, it was clutched in a catcher's mitt, in an ad -- need I say, not mine -- in a baseball program. Something about catching the winning spirit.
My unrelated plunge from the ad pinnacle only happened a year later -- but thereby hangs a whole different tale, as they said when the new poodle arrived at the dog pound.
Tracking down the Moichev label today reminded me of something I had completely forgotten, or conveniently ignored at the time.
Moichev not only didn't mean anything: the vodka wasn't Russian at all.
It was Canadian. Made in Canada. From Canadian grain. By Hudson's Bay Canadian Distillers--the retailer later sold that division to Seagram's.
Within a couple of years of the baseball ad --unsurprisingly, I'd say, given that pathetically uncool campaign --Moichev Vodka was one dead booze.
Such a shame. With The Man From Moichev, they could have made it big. Like, I mean huge.
And in today's climate? You wanna talk about owning the market? Moichev, The All-Canadian Vodka With A Fake Russian Name?
Wow. Now that is a really superhip ad campaign...