Thursday, August 24, 2023
What Things Are Worth by Charlie Kondek
Braeburn & Partners’ offices were in one of the mirrored, sky-absorbing buildings in Southfield visible from the freeway, and had an open atrium lobby with each of its four floors wrapped around it. Periodic conversation noises carried across the atrium. Smells, too. The agency bought dinner for any creatives or producers working late, and an aroma of garlic and falafel settled over the desks and potted plants.
Albert was at his desk with a blank piece of paper and a pencil in front of him, staring at an unopened bottle of J&B. He was working on an adlob, an “ad-like object,” trying to write the copy of a video or audio spot, or the text of a print ad, that would serve as the basis of a campaign. J&B wasn’t one of Braeburn’s accounts. From time to time, Albert’s ECD would challenge the teams to take an iconic brand, for which the agency’s strategy department had developed a brief, and come up with ideas, pitching them to the ECD and some of the strategists and chief account execs and getting critiqued. This was ostensibly a benevolent workshop meant to re-energize everybody’s creative muscles, but in a climate where they were always one bad quarter away from their next layoff, it only contributed to the general anxiety. The ECD invited the interns to play, too, so coming up with ideas fresher than the kids from CCS and Wayne State tightened the skin on the whole enterprise.
A bottle of J&B is tall, slender, and made of green glass. A yellow label covers the bottle with the brand name in big red letters. Across and beneath these are black letters that explain this is “RARE,” “a blend of the finest old scotch whiskies,” distilled and distributed by Justerini & Brooks, St. James Street, London, 1749. The bottle is embossed on the back with other lettering you can feel with your fingers that repeats the company’s name, and on the front, near the neck, a small round signet of the company’s logo. Its red top is not a cork but a twist-off cap. It makes a satisfying cracking sound when opened.
Albert resisted the urge to pull out the brief again. He knew it, had already riddled it with penciled holes, but the brief floated into focus anyway, and as before it was hard to imagine where its ideas ended and his own began. For starters, J&B was not a sophisticated spirit, the brief said politely. It was a value brand, lower-middle shelf, $19.99 at state’s minimum, perhaps pushed down by the proliferation of other, more complex and interesting whiskeys. Bourbons, single malts, imports from Japan. Locally distilled, small-batch waters. Standing at the counter at the liquor store and sweeping your eyes across the shelves, you’d scan, from top to bottom, $300 bottles, $120, eighty, down and down, brown, blue and gold, to the $50 bottles, the thirty, and on, where, somewhere between Wild Turkey ($22) and Canadian Club ($16.95), you’d find the familiar green bottle, just a rung above hell where glass devils lived, Lauder’s and Black Velvet, waiting to sink their claws into the stomachs of winos and high school kids.
J&B was an old brand. The brief was polite about that, too. Not old because it had originated in the 1700s but old in the American memory, the last decade to see its prominence being the 70s, when Dean Martin would roast Governor Ronald Reagan with a glass of it and a cigarette in his hand, or where it appeared in every dubbed Italian cops-and-robbers movie. America had moved on from J&B. It drank beer – it had always drunk beer, but now beer was what they made the commercials about, a daily prominent sip and not just something to mow the lawn with. It drank vodka, vodka tonics, vodka flavored like watermelon or chocolate. It drank wine coolers. Rum and Coke. Margaritas. Hard lemonades. White wine. Sangria. Whatever the hell came after that that resulted in the alcoholic soda pop that appeared today. Albert remembered a fact buried in the brief or his own research, he couldn’t quite remember, that they started bottling J&B in green glass during World War II because of a shortage of transparent glass. America had moved on from that, too.
Food had changed. Even now, Albert could smell the paper plate stained with his own dinner in the waste paper basket – hummus, garlic pickles, falafel, Lebanese bread. There was a time when your ordinary white suburbanite didn’t even know what these things were, when the most exotic cuisine he encountered was chop suey in ruby red restaurants with foreign gods on the shelves and an aquarium by the cash register, and where the green bottle with the yellow label would seem right at home next to the tiki glasses behind the bamboo bar. Now that was basic, even quaint, to a people that ate – informed, experienced – Indian, regional Indian, sushi. Ethiopian, Vietnamese, Korean, Peruvian. The knowledge of, appreciation for, booze had grown right along with it. That was in the brief, too.
Albert still hadn’t written a word of copy when he stood up from his desk. He walked to the edge of his department’s area to stand at the glass partition overlooking the atrium, enwrapped in the night sky. From this view he could not quite see, except by the glow of their mobile phones, and barely hear, a group of the interns gathered around one of the common tables on the ground floor, working, laughing, enjoying the assignment. Playing at being ad men and women, though no doubt they soon would be caught up in the real thing, at Braeburn or somewhere else. Trying to determine what things are worth. Trying to persuade others of their value.
Charlie Kondek is a marketing professional and writer from metro Detroit. His work to date has appeared at MysteryTribune.com, and in Kendo World and other niche publications. More at CharlieKondekWrites.com
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