What is your preference: tequila, vodka, whiskey, or cognac? For most individuals, the choice is clear: all of the above are realistic options except for the ever so embryonic cognac. Liquor preferences have been specifically molded by companies and their campaigns, with the underlying connotations of perpetuated race roles, or more explicitly, who is permitted or “endorsed” to consume a particular liquor or brand based on their social class or, more precisely, the ambiguous generic and generated rhetoric manipulated and passed down from centuries of racial turmoils and hostilities connected to their ethnicity.
According to Mitenbuler, “cognac’s réputation française belies a split personality. The French don’t touch cognac. Instead, they export more than 97 percent of it, according to the tourist board of Poitou-Charentes, the administrative region where Cognac is located. The U.S. is the biggest single customer, with African-Americans accounting for a large majority of those sales (Mitenbuler 2013).” Even though most assume that African Americans have been consuming cognac for a mere five or so decades, stemming back to their exposure of French cognac during the plight of World War II, their intimate relationship with the alcoholic beverage originates as far as two centuries ago during the upmost times of slavery and Black-bodied ownership. During the holidays, slave-owners would allow and challenge their slaves to drink infinite amounts of alcohol, encouraging them to release their “rebellious” spirits, diluting their abilities to rest or cultivate their own living quarters for their families. By urging their slaves to binge drink, slaveholders were able to ensure that freedom and progression were unattractive and undesirable.
Malcolm Wise, states that, “from Colt 45 to Hennessy to Patron, keep the drinks coming and Newports lit. Another vice of Black America is alcohol and smoking. Slave owners urge Black slaves to drink and get drunk when not working in the fields in order to keep them sedates and help prevent them from plotting an escape…America has used the same sedative to keep Black America under the influence and under achieving (Wise, 2013, pg.176)”. Seeing as though slaves “enjoyed” excess consumption of alcohol, slaveholders utilized an assorted array of spirits, mostly cognacs, to maintain control and supremacy over their slaves; sustaining their slaves in a state of sedation deviated them from requesting or coveting for more opportunities to develop their intelligence through reading, writing, or land ownership (Douglas 1845).
Companies that produce cognac, or more specifically, Hennessy, have all endorsed the history and correlation of cognac to the Black community. Through the evolution of spirits, and cognac, companies like Hennessy have been granted with the ability to urbanize, refine, and “sophisticate” the liquor in order to retain the rhetoric and antiquity cognac has in connection to Blacks. Throughout this analysis, I will be examining how liquor companies strategically utilize different marketing strategies to entice certain groups. Distinctly, I will be dissecting and investigating how Hennessy provides itself as an important artifact to the Black community through the use of high specialized marketing techniques (i.e. “wild rabbit” campaigns, hip-hop promotions) that appeal to a predominately Black consumer audience and influence/impact their culture.
The two methods or rhetorical perspectives that are pertinent in analyzing how Hennessy functions as an important artifact for the Black community include the Marxist critique and narrative critique. While looking through a Marxist lens, one is able to understand how liquor companies, or in this case Hennessy, utilize ad campaigns that have very specific target markets, giving them the ability to hyper-capitalize off of consumers while also maintaining distinct socio-economic class systems that preserves normative white hegemonic ideals within American society, and influence the behaviors of their consumers (not just what they buy, but how they act). More explicitly, underrepresented communities, like the African American culture, are exposed to a façade lifestyle presented through hip-hop, television series (i.e. Empire), magazines, and more that inevitably imprisons and growth within their community, stifling generations from progression and/or transforming their Black American narrative.
When looking through a narrative lens, one is able to recognize the rhetorical force of dominant “Black” narratives (i.e. flashy, smooth, rowdy) that shape the Black community and acknowledge potential alternative stories that challenge or maintain these hegemonic prime anecdotes. When identifying terministic screens, or limitations that encumber our capacity to see (“trained incapacity), one is able to recognize how the Black “economy” is told by Hennessy. Teleology refers to the perfection of the artifact, or how Hennessy reaches its fullest potential; in most cases, the consumer is Black, so it is automatically associated that, within hip-hop videos where rappers are drinking, or television shows where characters are drinking, it is automatically assumed that the alcohol present is in fact Hennessy, and not a whiskey or vodka. The pentad also grants the ability to understand the story being developed and told to the Black community, or more specifically, the act, agent, agency, scene, and purpose.
Many literary works and articles have provided evidence and commented on how liquor companies function as agencies with hidden agendas in order to sustain a certain target market or sense of “nostalgia” for their consumers. Rhetorical critic, Malcolm Wise, states that, “the alcoholic beverage companies are working hard at developing new flavors that appeal to Black America. The are still heavily targeting younger generations, but are pushing for the adult Blacks to sell the lifestyle as part of ‘in’ culture (Wise, 2013, pg. 177)”. Frith & Mueller also pinpoint how different liquors, including Hennessy Cognac, are most disproportionately exposed to black youth compared to all youth (Frith & Mueller 2010). Keppel also comments on how companies, like Hennessy, devote billions of dollars to specifically reach black consumers: “Studies show that blacks, who make up 12.1% of the U.S. population, drink less per capita than the national norm. But among some premium liquor brands, black consumers account for up to 50% of U.S. sales.
Consequently, the industry is paying more attention to black consumers, devoting an increasing share of its $1.2-billion annual advertising budget to reach them (Keppel 1987). Curtis also comments on how cognac, and the likes of Hennessy, have been able to exploit multiple, layered identities for decades: “This year marks the 10th anniversary of a seminal moment in the history of cognac: the release of rapper Busta Rhymes’s ‘Pass the Courvoisier Part II.’ The hit triggered a boomlet in sales of Courvoisier and other cognacs and opened the floodgates to references to “yak” in hundreds of hip-hop numbers…with that, cognac became cartoonish, a symbol of untamed luxury. It got blingy. Of course, this new stereotype had to be layered onto a more established one: that of a snooty drink served in snifters in exclusive gentlemen’s clubs. As with the rap association, this image was anchored in reality. Thanks to these conflicting clichés of conspicuous consumption, cognac is doing rather well: it broke global sales records last year, where the new capitalists are evidently looking for something blingy, too (Curtis 2012)”.
Even though there have been commentaries on how liquor companies, like Hennessy, have strategically utilized marketing campaigns to sustain their target markets, this paper presents a deeper outlook on how liquor companies intentionally maintain racial divisions and tension through their ad campaigns, simulated liquor preferences amongst different communities, and more. Hennessy’s incessant, subliminal ploys that are extracted from a hegemonic, or “slaveholder” mentality are inevitably used in order to keep everyone, or every race, “in their place”.
It is important that this modern day bamboozlement be discussed because, as liquor connoisseurs, we never really think about how a simple preference and sip of a drink is performing through us what liquor companies, like Hennessy, have spent billions of dollars and efforts on: deliberate and premeditated puppetry that casts us into our social class and stigmatizes us without our knowledge or consent.
Hennessy is symptomatic of the current cultural climate because of how is it currently being used within different realms of pop culture; we see in music videos with hip-hop artists ranging from Jay Z to Eminem, in ethnic movies and television shows like Empire, and even endorsed and created by the likes of Nas and Erykah Badu. The mere associations that take place between Hennessy and the Black community have instilled and preserved this centuries-long relationship between manufacturer and consumer, creating an obstruction of an authentic preference, culture, or truth that originates deep within the heart and bloodshed of the African American people. Hennessy has been able to revolutionize and alter the historical contexts of their relationship with Blacks, hence distorting their consumer and deceiving their most important target market for capitalistic gain.
Hennessy: The New “Black”
Hennessy has undergone many transformations within the last few decades, with at least eight different cognac properties or tastes, along with new bottles, advertisement, and more for each flavor. Being that Hennessy functions as a type of drink predominately seen within the Black community, they pushed their cognac to the utmost limit by naming and dressing one of their cognacs as “Hennessy Black”, the cognac that “discovers new paths, [is an] alluring contrast, extremely versatile [and] a fresh smoothness (Hennessy 2015).” The bottle is completely black, dawning the 1765 hatchet logo with “maison fondeé” or “founded at home”. The renovation and conversion of the bottle’s color, brief description, and rank of importance within the company act as an agent for the company, granting them the ability to push this idea to their Black consumers that they are, what Hennessey deems, smooth, versatile, or contrasting.
Through the development of an agent that identifies with their target market (i.e. colors, descriptions, wording), Hennessy’s attempt to authenticate their target market’s identity, or counter identity, grants them the ability to communicate intimately and explicitly with their consumers. Rhetorically speaking, the bottle in itself stands as a symbol of esteem, class, and taste for the Black consumer who drinks their cognac. It is able to perform as an entity that self-identifies with Black consumers who are hip and fresh, maintaining their genre placement within the realm of wherever the consumer is (i.e. the music video, the club scene).
Wild Rabbit 7
Hennessy’s wild rabbit campaign was built off of the idea that, “In Cognac, France, where Hennessy is made, rabbits run wild. But the intriguing animals are rarely seen. Over time, people invented tales about them; Tales about a creature that lives in people's minds. This elusive Wild Rabbit is thought to drive people from one success to another…. (Hennessey 2015).” Their wild rabbit campaign, generating the support from hip-hop artists like Nas and Erykah Badu, calls for the individual drinker to release what, “drives them to success”. But, the hidden agenda from Hennessey’s campaign is the calling for their consumers, or their Black target market, release their “rebellion”, parallel to how slaveholders in the 1800s challenged and urged their slaves to binge drink in order to keep them sedated and mentally impaired/stifled from growing as a community or as individuals. Hennessy, through their wild rabbit campaign, is functioning as the modern-day slaveholder, inspiring their consumers to find what drives them and, “propels [them] to fulfill [their] potential, to achieve [their] dreams… (Hennessy 2015)”, in order to smother their target market, in this case African Americans, into a boundless path of cultural degeneration.
Hennessy’s wild rabbit campaign, while suggesting its ability to grant the consumer the tenacity and will to chase their dreams and discover what pushes them to their fullest potential, really acts as a form of escapism from reality, hindering the individual from truly pursuing anything because of their inabilities to do so (i.e. drunkenness) and acting as a temporary pass to their euphoric paradise during their intoxication. Never do we see consumers of Hennessy undergoing great feats and dedicating their success and thanks to Hennessy; if anything, Hennessy can be praised for its ability to keep the consumer’s mind fixated on hopeless dreams and outlandish desires that cannot be fathomed sober, while capitalizing off of their presentations of façade lifestyles that entice their consumers to participate in the search of their “wild rabbit”.
Hip-Hop Hennessy: Nas & Erykah
Two of Hennessy’s major ambassadors, Nas and Erykah Badu, function as pieces to the puzzle, or agents that assist in the maintenance of what Hennessy pursues to present to their Black consumers. Nas, understood as the “wild rabbit icon”, operates as their most important agent, relaying the Black narrative to the consumer that consists of “the ride”, or epic Black man’s ‘hero’s journey”: the ordinary world, or exposure to the hood, struggle, murder, and growing up fast, all the way to the return with the elixir, or how Nas returns to New York and the subway, bearing the Hennessy bottle and logo, the treasure that assisted him in pursuing and perfecting his “wild rabbit”.
Erykah, on the other hand, operated as the approximant for women and liquor: artistic, sweet, alluring, quiet, etc. Hennessy’s ability to clearly define the Black male and female narratives, and align it with the likes of Nas, or Erykah, or Jay Z, or whatever hip-hop artist they can pull into their mix, grants them the opportunity to not only exploit the Black struggle, but twist it in a way that intrigues the consumer to step into a false-reality outside of that struggle into Hennessey’s world, without even leaving their hood or community. Even within Nas’ and Erykah’s narratives, both function as white masculinity’s hegemonic normative roles for Black males and females: “Hip-hop femininities and masculinities are subject to market concerns of white supremacist, patriarchal, multinational, corporate capitalism and are positioned as marginal to the means of material production and institutional political power (Miller-Young, 2008, pg.263).”
The potential implications of Hennessy constituting identity, relationships, social relations, hierarchy, status, etc. are that is will continue to operate and thrive as an artifact utilized by contemporary America to maintain hierarchical precedence over underrepresented/ marginalized communities like the Black community. Its relationship with these communities functions as something bigger than just a drink, but more so as a distraction from what is undeniably and covertly taking place: the practice of racial divide and role-playing. Within the next century or decade, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if a shift takes place for other liquor companies, with their utmost goal to push their tastes to these marginalized communities in order to dilute these communities from diminishing alcoholism and potentially becoming a major “threat” towards society (i.e. more successful doctors, teachers, politicians of color).