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On Watching the Super Bowl in Cognac
What a football game translated into French can tell us about explaining foreign concepts to normal people.
I’ve been traveling for the past ten days, which is why you didn’t see a newsletter in your inbox last week. My adventures in Spain, Portugal, and France have mostly been to refill the old Everyday Drinking content tank (which you’ll start seeing Tuesday with a piece on Portuguese wine and spirits).
But it’s not all been work. Late-night friends at Bar Brutal and Caribbean Club in Barcelona can attest to that. In any case, I ended up watching the Super Bowl from the couch of my Airbnb in Cognac the other night—or more like early Monday morning.
I can’t say I enjoyed watching my beloved Philadelphia Eagles lose on a last-second field goal, kicked after the Chiefs wound down the clock following a questionable holding call—which happened around 4:12 am in France. So I’m in a bit of mourning.
It was a mildly strange experience watching the Super Bowl in French on the sports channel L’Equipe. I enjoyed hearing Jalen Hurt’s touchdown runs wildly celebrated as “Exceptionnel!” by the announcers. One immediate difference is that I did not get the epic commercials that we all live for in the U.S. Here, the same handful of middlebrow French ads, including one for “Le Whopper,” basically played on a loop during every commercial break.
So—though several friends have asked—no, they did not air the Rémy Martin spot, with icon Serena Williams as the Cognac house’s new spokesperson, during the French telecast. But I have seen it by now and I have some thoughts.
In a dark and moody locker room, Serena delivers the “Inch by Inch” speech from the 2000 football movie Any Given Sunday—minus all the middle-aged regret of Al Pacino’s original monologue. From the Rémy Martin press release:
“Rémy Martin’s first Super Bowl advertisement celebrates teamwork in many forms by highlighting the individuals who acknowledge that great success cannot be accomplished alone, and that as part of a collective team, true excellence can be achieved.”
What does any of this have to do with Cognac, or spirits, or drinking? Who knows? By this stage of late capitalism we all know how branding works. It’s always great for a brand to have someone so widely admired as Serena sitting at a bar ordering its liquid on the rocks. But here’s the thing. Do many people who watched that ad, or see the bottles of V.S.O.P. and 1738, or hear the name Rémy Martin…even know that it’s Cognac? If they do, do they even know what Cognac is?
Cognac is very complicated. It’s a region of thousands of growers and producers, but it’s controlled by four brands—Hennessy, Martell, Courvoisier, and Rémy Martin. In the U.S., these so-called Big Four sell about 90 percent of the Cognac consumed, with Hennessy alone accounting for 60 percent. The majority of those sales are of one product: Hennessy VS. Prices, aging, and pretty much any other rule about what’s allowed and what’s not is effectively set by these Big Four. They wield their power. I’ve written at length about this in the past.
For instance, the Big Four rarely explain to consumers what Cognac, or even brandy, actually is. Just ask a random person to tell you the basic difference between brandy and whiskey. Or ask someone to tell you what Rémy Martin is. Unless everyone you know is a spirits nerd, I bet at least 8 out of 10 people cannot. Even if they are regular drinkers of Hennessy or Rémy Martin they might not even know. If you watch its Super Bowl, Rémy Martin’s liquid is simply a brown spirit consumed on the rocks—an alternative to Crown Royal, or Jameson, or whatever other big-brand brown spirit.
Does this matter? In the most basic sense, no. People consume stuff they know nothing about all the time. It’s fine. Who cares? You don’t need to know anything to enjoy a nice drink.
But this is also the way a big brand like Rémy Martin wants things to be. It doesn’t want to deal with explaining the pesky details of a complex, historic spirit. The Big Four don’t have much interest in helping build Cognac as a category, in which dozens of smaller brand alternatives also thrive. It’s not exactly “celebrating teamwork” as the ad suggests.
I’ve been arguing for years that this is not a smart move. Maybe it works just fine now, but it’s short-sighted. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, it’s the sort of strategy that left the American wine industry in its current sorry state.
Which brings me back to the French telecast of the Super Bowl. The most noteworthy moment for me was during the pre-game show, about 16 minutes before kickoff. L’Equipe cut away to a rather low-tech video that attempted to explain football to its French viewership. Football is a complex sport with a lot of arcane rules, but they stuck to the basics: first downs, touchdowns, extra points, etc. It was just enough to give a newbie a little knowledge and background to decide if they liked this strange foreign sport or not.
Big wine and spirits companies might give it a try sometime.