“In the majority of rapes on college campuses, both parties involved had been drinking—often to excess. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and can often heighten the desire for sexual activity. Those who expect sex after they have been drinking may use force if they encounter resistance.” —University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire Web site counselling page.
When the rum rebranding happened last year I was kind of horrified. The new tagline for the rum’s advertisements was “When it pours, you reign.” My brain exploded. Really? Show images of soaking wet, drunk-looking women, in a campaign that explicitly gives complete domination to the “you” to whom the ads appeal? What on earth were you thinking? Who thought it was a good idea to create a campaign that basically advertises date rape?
“Fifty-five per cent of the college men who acknowledged committing sexual assault on a date reported being under the influence of alcohol at the time of the assault,” says the above-quoted Web site. “In the same study, 53 per cent of the college women who experienced sexual aggression on a date reported that they were under the influence at the time of the assault.” Clearly, there is a link between alcohol abuse and date rape; but does the campaign exploit that link or is it just an unhappy molehill that I, as a rabid feminist, am making a mountain of?
There’s no doubt that my feminist ideology colours my interpretation of the campaign. However, anyone with a basic understanding of advertising psychology can see I have a point. It is a fact that rum (like most spirituous liquor) is pitched mostly to male consumers. This rebranding is meant to widen the consumer base for this brand (as I have read on the behance.net Web page of Sophie Charles, who seems to be one of the people involved in creating the campaign)[UPDATE: THAT PAGE HAS SINCE BEEN MADE PRIVATE]. However, the ads seem still mostly pitched at males. I can tell this because the majority of the shots in the TV commercials, and the majority of the images in the print and billboard campaigns feature scantily-clad women in various poses of ecstatic rapture—in other words, they look like they’ve been drinking and have lost their inhibitions. There are few men in the billboard and print ads; whereas the TV commercial shows a party scene, the billboards in particular tend to isolate the females and show them wet from head to toe, reminiscent of a wet T-shirt contest in which the female participants are put on show for the sexual titillation of the audience—who are mostly men.
The word “reign” has a specific connotation of dominance, ruling over, being in charge of. A monarch reigns over subjects, and although it can be a beneficent relationship, one always knows who holds the power. “Reign” is not a word that invites negotiation. Juxtapose this word with the sexually objectified, drunk-looking girls, and what do you get? In my opinion, an ad for date rape. More than half the rapes reported in T&T are date or acquaintance rapes, according to the Rape Crisis Society in a 2005 newspaper story by Suzanne Sheppard. This is hardly unusual, as most rapes reported anywhere are committed by people known to the victim. Though you might hear of “date rape drugs” that a rapist slips into the victim’s drink to knock the victim out, it is in fact far more common for the danger to lie in the drink itself, rather than any exotic chemical added to it.
When drunk people get into sexual situations, it’s not unusual for them to have sex. Alcohol lowers inhibitions and impairs judgment, the perfect cocktail for poor choices. To quote the same University of Wisconsin Web site, “It is hard enough to communicate about sex when sober. Trying to communicate and make good decisions when drinking is impossible for most people.” I’m not a habitual rum drinker, though I’ll drink the occasional mojito faster than you can say “Cuba libre.” I have nothing against the brand, or its parent company. What I do have a problem with is irresponsible, thoughtless advertising. You may say, “Well, that’s life. Everybody knows people feel sexy when they drink. You can’t blame the liquor for date rape.” My response: Remember “Rum is smasho”? We didn’t blame rum for car crashes before that, either.
[This column appeared in the Trinidad Guardian on July 17, 2012]