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Postmodern Village
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Bartleby and Jaymes: Gentleness is Effects of (Small) Beer – the Influence of Alco-Pops on Free Will and Cultural Immobilization
By Walker Miller-Busch

Even more startling than the availability of alcohol in our society is the ease of our preferred delivery systems. Much ink has already been spilt on the subject of “alco-pops” and the like, of the recent rise (and sudden collapse) of alcoholic energy drinks, of Jell-O shots and beer bongs and caramel-apple-tinis. Besides the obvious attempt to capture the youth market, these sorts of drinks trend toward an easy indolence in the alcohol-consuming population, a tendency toward an alarming atavism that portends little good.

At one point, the saving grace of most alcoholic beverages was that they were acquired tastes. Only more sophisticated, adult palates, the better-trained and perhaps more jaundiced, could tolerate hard liquors, and so they appealed little to the very young. A light beer might go down well for an older teen, but we still find few of them pounding porter. Likewise, a single-malt scotch is simply going to burn the esophageal lining of a youth raised on soda and super-sweet and frothy lattes. There was no need to worry about the state of the advanced drinker's soul; the corruption was already done. The advanced drinker, indeed, frequently had to take pains to acquire his tastes—there was something of working at it, of trying to get past the perhaps more off-putting aspects and to refine from the experience the overtones and undertones of a complex flavor. There was also something of leisure: the advanced drinker took time to savor the flavor because, well, he'd earned it.

Not so with the newer alcoholic products. From spiked lemonades to wine-coolers to inebriation-inducing liquid candies like Pucker, the flavors are simplified in order to ease the transition into the agreed-upon stupor. In other words, these are drinks for those who would “prefer not to” cultivate a sophisticated palate. These are drinks for a generation that has come to expect, nay feel entitled to, instant gratification.

“So what?” you may be asking yourself, “It's what the market demands, and that's good enough for me.” This is as may be; old fogeys like your humble servant may decry the end of The Way Things Used to Be, but there is no need, one may argue, to get in the way of progress.

This writer is willing to accept the free-market argument, but with this caveat: the rise of alco-pops and their cousins has broad and far-reaching ramifications for society at large. When we lose our own desire to work for our leisure, we lose the desire to work. As dies hard liquor, so dies gumption.

Bartles & JaymesThink back, for instance, to the original Bartles and Jaymes marketing campaign. The commercials depicted a couple of older southern gentlemen, the unnamed announcer and the silent “Ed” who was always up to something absurd in the background. These two were clean and of a comfortable class, to be sure; they were not dirty or stupid or unapproachably bumpkiny. But they had no obvious means of support, either, other than plumping their hooch: Bartles and Jaymes “premium wine cooler,” even though, when the marketing campaign began, most of America had never heard of a wine cooler (other than a literal cooler for wine); much less did they require a differentiation between Bartles and Jaymes and a clearly inferior or generic product. At the same time that a history is thereby implied, no attempt is made to tap into some ancient tradition of grape cultivation and careful techniques of aging. There is no decades-long fermentation process that requires the dutiful commitment of generations and that ultimately culminates in the glorious, rarefied essence that dangles its legs along the length of the glass. Premium or no, Bartles and Jaymes appears to have been whipped up in the kitchen right prior to the arrival of our callers, clean and tidy though that kitchen may be.

Fun times? Yes, but also a giving up.

The Bartles and Jaymes pitchmen (it's never clear which one is Bartles and which one Jaymes, or even if these are supposed to be Bartles and Jaymes), while vaguely comic, also imply, at a meta-analytical level, a campaign that has, itself, surrendered to any attempt to represent its product in a genuine way or in a manner that asks anything of its intended audience. Ed is prone to goofy and often fantastical attempts to promote the drink, but goes about them with a half-assed sort of stunned fatigue. The speaking representative is almost always seated, generally laconic, and, while he ends every pitch with “Thank you for your support,” goes about it with about as much enthusiasm as a basset hound goes about preparing your taxes. The message is that you should buy Bartles and Jaymes because it supports these two characters, not because they have worked hard to make a great product or that it is one about which you or anyone else should really be passionate.

It might seem counter-intuitive that such a series of advertisements should appeal to the young, but it turned them on, even to the degree that teens of the time would drawl “and thank you for your support” as a kind of tagline. Young people could identify with the downplayed Bartles and Jaymes ads as simpatico with their too-hip-to-care artificial sangfroid. Bartles and Jaymes were “whatever” legitimized by corporate America and repackaged in a form their parents found scoff-worthy or at least easy to ignore. Thus the nearness of the campaign to the attitudes of the young expressed by further implication the nearness of the product to one with which they were already familiar: Kool Aid. The ease with which the pitchmen pitched mirrored the ease with which the young could move from their childhood drinks to the “grown up” world of “wine,” or at least wine coolers. They could get as lit as their parents were without having to take on the responsibility of learning to like the drink first.

That to which the marketers are appealing, then, is not merely a taste, but a taste for laziness; it is not a drink so much as it is a do-nothing lifestyle, the promise that you can have all of the benefits of adult beverages but none of the work, all of the self-congratulatory esteem of being a grown-up without ever having to actually grow up.

Over the two-plus decades since the Bartles and Jaymes commercials have aired, the implications of having given up have informed many other ad campaigns trying to replicate their success and thereby capture a valuable market. And along with it has grown an entire generation who have been trained by these ads, inculcated into a culture of having given up. Not only won't they have to work to create in themselves an appreciation for what they consume, they do not even have to think about what they consume. One-click shopping reached our gullets long before it invaded our virtual spaces.

From here it is a small step or two to complete immobility. If you need not work at leisure, why do anything for yourself? Is not the mere fact of your existence and your implied willingness to spend enough for you to be “valued”? What is next on the list of that which you would prefer not to do?

We are already seeing this in schools, of course. Colleges and universities have begun to think of themselves as providing an “educational product,” and so those we used to consider students are now “consumers” who expect a grade (and often a good one) just for having paid their tuition and fees. The next step, naturally, is on the job. People will soon expect a paycheck just for showing up; the value of work, after all, is having a job, in much the same way that the value of a wine cooler is having supported Bartles and Jaymes. Actually doing something is simply out of the question.

Better still, the job should come to you, or at least the site should be officially moved to you, because once you have shown your support by having the job, why should you actually have to travel to get to it? We don't want to be contributing members of society; that's bitter. We want the play that is Kool-Aid packaged with the punch of forgetting.

Cultural immobility, then, isn't merely some type of pathology; it's the teleology we're bottled and sold.