Even though I ceased to be what marketing and PR firms refer to as an ‘influencer’ many moons ago (and no doubt any influencing I ever did was of fairly minimal significance and more often than not counter-productive or straight up subversive), I am still a victim of the whisky PR machine’s onslaught of fake news.
Believe me, I’ve tried to escape it. I’ve unsubscribed from dozens of official PR mailing lists I inadvertently found myself on in the days when I edited a well-known whisky retailing website. I’ve turned off notifications for all the whisky Facebook groups and pages I had liked and joined of my own volition or had been added to by well-meaning chums years ago in less cynical, market-intrusiony times. I unfollowed or culled from my friend-list all the earnest, eager complete strangers, friends of friends, and one-meeting acquaintances who digitally befriended me in my days as part of the whisky machine and who then subsequently flooded my timeline with pictures of their children, pets, dinners, holidays, despicable new whisky cocktails and bottles of Glenkinchie Winter Gold or Glenlivet Founders Reserve, all enthusiastically captioned, frequently in languages I don’t speak.
So much was necessary to preserve my own sanity. But of course, on the increasingly rare occasions when I do venture onto Facebook now, I still see updates from my actual friends, many of whom I met through whisky and whose affection and camaraderie counts for me as by far the most valuable legacy of my time in the industry.
By necessity or inclination, some of them are still producing or interacting with the various species of whisky content, be it infotainment, advertorial, tasting notes, or screeds of needlessly wordy carping like this article. Nowadays, as an outsider pissing into the tent, I am also subject to the insidious love/hate envy inspired by seeing pictures on my timeline of the exact same kind that I used to inflict on my own innocent Facebook friends: recently opened bottles of fabulous whisky I’ll never taste, official tastings and product launches I no longer have to go to, whisky festivals I can’t attend.
In a nutshell, then, anyone with even a passing interest in whisky or who has friends with a passing interest in whisky cannot help but be exposed to the proliferation of whisky content on social media. I believe that the problems with this proliferation are numerous and are currently unrecognised or ignored.
The biggest issue is Fake Whisky News. It should be noted that this is not Fake News in the Donald Trump Biggest Inauguration Crowd Ever sense. When I talk about Fake News I don’t mean Real Lies. In many cases, by objective standards, the ‘News’ may not even be ‘Fake’. But it’s certainly not actual news; the fakery, as far as I’m concerned, comes in presenting it as such.
An example: Nothing used to make my heart sink further when opening my inbox than to discover a certain type of email. The titles of these emails were always in bold block capitals and without fail the first word was “NEWS”.
“NEWS: XYZ DISTILLERY PICKS UP TRIPLE BRONZE MEDAL AT EASTER ISLAND SPIRITS COMPETITION”
“NEWS: XYZ BRAND LAUNCHES LIMITED EDITION GIFT TIN IN SYLDAVIAN TRAVEL RETAIL”
“NEWS: GLOBAL SUB-BRAND AMBASSADOR TO WESTEROS CHANGES JOB TITLE”
“NEWS: NEW BRAND AMBASSADOR TO KNOWN VISIBLE UNIVERSE COMBS HAIR, BUYS NEW SUIT, PRESENTS STARTLING NEW QUANTUM FIELD THEORY TO NOBEL COMMITTEE”
I have an enormously important piece of Real News for the producers of this kind of material.
“NEWS: LITERALLY NOBODY IN THE WORLD OUTSIDE OF YOUR OFFICE GIVES A SOLITARY AIRBORNE SELF-PROPELLING COITUS ABOUT YOUR TRIPLE BRONZE MEDAL AT SOME FREAKING SPIRITS COMPETITION, OR THIS MONTH’S NEW BRAND AMBASSADOR OR YOUR POXY LIMITED EDITION GIFT TIN. PLEASE, PLEASE GO AWAY, LIE DOWN QUIETLY IN A DARKENED ROOM AND RECONSIDER YOUR LIFE CHOICES.”
But perhaps that would be unfair, because there are of course a handful of people who do care about these things: the people who take these dismal press releases as if they’ve just been handed down by Moses on his way back from Mt. Sinai, change the paragraphs around, fashion a paraphrase here and there and then cut and paste them into WordPress to be presented as their own opinion – with enthusiastic header and footer sentences gushing their excitement to prove it – and then blanket-bomb the resultant ‘article’ across social media to their echo-chamber of followers, numbering sometimes in the dozens (some of whom may be actual real humans and not bots) in the fervent hope that they may, if lucky, be retweeted (packaged, naturally, as NEWS) by the brand itself to their thousands of followers, some of whom may be actual real humans etc. etc….. you get the point.
This is a remarkably similar tactic to that employed by the Trump administration and their alt-right Alternative Facts cohorts: put out the news you want to hear, no matter how false it is, and then when it gets reported by other organisations, simply attribute their coverage of it as if that validates the original bullshit.
These wannabe whisky influencers (was there ever a sadder ambition?) are knowingly part of the machine. They accept that the rewards for their souls will be slim at first – a few retweets, Facebook likes, smiley-faced comments from Syldavian Brand Ambassadors – until they have enough followers to merit inclusion in a Twitter tasting.
They also know that spending a large part of their free time repackaging, Facebook sharing and retweeting official PR bumf (with imploring comments expressing their fervent desire to taste the precious nectar, hint hint, smilyface) might eventually lead to some poor PR intern managing the brand’s Twitter account that day to decide that they deserve a press sample. This sample might even be a desirable one that could be auctioned for cold hard cash.
They know that they are expected subsequently to write a suitably frothing tasting note that gets an acceptable amount of exposure, but there’s no need to actually taste the stuff. Why jeopardise that auction bounty? Just rephrase the official notes, add an outlandish tasting term or two and double-check against what everyone else said before publishing. Fake, Fake, Fake. Fake it ’til you make it.
I’m aware that the above sounds horribly cynical, but there’s no question that it occurs. Press-only Ardbeg Galileo and Wealth Solutions Karuizawa miniatures, to name just two examples, were a regular feature at whisky auctions for months after the official release and still occasionally turn up. The truly cynical might even dare to suggest that some companies might have given out these treasures to their influencers in the full knowledge that some of them would end up at auction, with the resultant ludicrous prices ensuring further hype for the public release…
With sufficient dedication and a point-blank refusal to contemplate rocking the boat in any way, a year or two of this kind of fawning can eventually lead to these wannabes being groomed into bona fide influencers with all the thrills of advance PR releases and the frisson of embargoed press kits that the job entails. They might earn a distillery trip (that they could have just paid for independently and thereby escaped the obligation to write an enormously tedious blogpost about it when they got home). Who knows, perhaps one day they could even be Syldavian Brand Ambassadors themselves.
The thoughts/rants above are all Tim’s own. Whilst The Whisky Lounge may or may not agree with everything he writes, we think you’ll agree that it is food for thought. And long may he continue to think!