This post is part of a series on celebrity spokespeople who ended up doing serious harm to the brands they were hired to promote, or vice versa. See how we rank the 20 top spokesperson fiascos.
In the mid-eighties, a couple of years before I began to drink legally, wine coolers became the alcoholic beverage of choice. Sweet and mildly alcoholic, they came in a variety of fruit flavors and neatly halved the distance between mixed drinks and a Shirley Temple. The combination of cheap wine, carbonated water, fruit juice, and sugar actually packed a pretty decent kick, particularly given that the sweetness almost completely obscured the taste of the alcohol.
One of the toughest problems with wine coolers was selling them to an adult audience. While precocious youngsters were quick to appreciate the Lolita-esque appeal of a super-sweet alcoholic version of Kool-Aid, this image was far from attractive to most of the people who actually bought alcohol. To combat the soda pop overtones of the product, Ernest and Julio Gallo used a version of conservative, home-town sincerity to push their "Bartles and Jaymes" brand. Beginning in 1984, they ran a series of ads featuring two men in hats and suspenders -- "Frank Bartles" and "Ed Jaymes" -- talking in halting sentences about their fine products. The commercials took off and Bartles and Jaymes became an industry leader.
Seagram's (Diageo plc, NYSE:DEO), desperate to up the sales of its flagging brand, hired Bruce Willis in 1986. Popular as "David Addison" on Moonlighting, Willis brought a fun, wisecracking sensibility to the ads, which borrowed heavily from the Bartles and Jaymes brand, often featuring a group of friends sitting around a porch, jamming about the glories of Seagram's Golden Wine coolers. The commercials were exceedingly popular, spawning Willis' short-lived singing career and vaulting Segrams from fifth-ranked to top-ranked brand within two years.
While Willis rollicking mid-eighties ads for the wine coolers were a lot of fun, the same cannot be said for his music career. In this context, Seagram's decision to put the kibosh on the vocal stylings of Bruno might actually rank as a humanitarian endeavor. Willis, meanwhile, went on to do great work in Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, and The Sixth Sense. In the long run, he should probably keep Seagram's on his yearly Christmas card list!*
*Okay, Die Hard isn't Hamlet. But it was a solid, fun film and has probably made Bruce Willis more money than he can count.