If you watch Hulu, as I do when my Critique of Pure Reason is broken, you have probably seen Grand Marnier’s “blend out” commercials. In the one above, everyone at the club is kind of bored by a jazz combo, until a young man reinvigorates them by mounting the stage and beatboxing along. Grand Marnier: drink a bunch of it and interrupt a public performance, probably to broad acclaim. It’s pretty much your standard alcohol-commercial excellence fantasy, (q.v. Heineken) except everyone in the club is black, and our beatboxer is white. Surely there’s a reason for that—but what?
This ad is part of a whole campaign by the JWT Canada agency, in which the beatboxer—henceforth referred to as Dan Marnier—joins various musical performances, including at a country bar and at a salsa bar. Those are, of course, the three races of music. It’s worth noting that each of these commercials contains a reaction shot of a black man looking at Dan Marnier in approval. I would call these characters spectatorial models, except I’m pretty sure the target audience here is white.
Why else choose a white beatboxer? One need only look at the maracas player in the salsa commercial to be convinced that JWT understands the ethnicities associated with genres of music. Beatboxing and the hip hop from which it emerged are historically black forms. If the producers of this commercial held an open call for beatboxers—and it appears they did—what are the odds they arbitrarily settled on one who was white?
It must be a choice. But why make that choice? One answer could be the “blend out” slogan. Dan Marnier is the only white person in the black jazz club, so he can’t exactly blend in. But he can fit in by adding his own unique flavor to the onstage entertainment, uninvited. From a certain perspective, he is blending out—fitting in by standing out.
From another perspective, of course, he is relentlessly appropriating black music. This white dude in his 30s is not content to take over 1980s black urban music by beatboxing; he must also appropriate 1930s black urban music by beatboxing over a jazz band. He does the same thing to latinos at the salsa club.
At the country bar it’s not so racially charged. Dan Marnier’s compulsion to make himself the focus of other people’s live performances is, in that context, merely narcissism. But in all three commercials, there’s that black man approving of what he is doing. Sure, this behavior constitutes a massive breach of courtesy, and it carries troubling racial overtones, but three old black guys sign off on it, so…
So what? In theory, these commercials challenge the ethnic barriers in music and social life. Dan Marnier blends out everywhere; he doesn’t care about the color of your skin, as long as you are willing to let him be in your band. Another theory: Dan Marnier blends out with nonwhite cultures by forcibly assuming control of them. It’s not appropriate for him to interrupt the jazz band, but he seizes the mic and beatboxes over them anyway, overpowering one kind of black music to feed another kind back to this black audience because it is his privilege to do so. And they love it.
That’s the magic of hard alcohol. It’s also the magic of white ad workers marketing to a white audience. In their comments to Applied Arts, JWT Canada suggests that they interpret their own commercials according to the benevolent boundary-crossing theory, because that’s how they see millennials. Quote:
[The millennial male] mixes eras of music, he’s blending fashion, he’s blending the type of people he hangs with, whether they’re white, black, gay, straight. It’s indicative of the millennial mindset; they don’t want to label themselves.
Correction: the white millennial male does that. He doesn’t what to be labeled, which is convenient because American society constructs his whiteness as the absence of ethnicity. For black people and to a lesser extent latinos, race remains a totalizing identity. That’s why they get their own jazz club, and why they get to be the exotic culture in which Dan Marnier blends out.
What we have here is either a tone-deaf celebration of cultural appropriation or a progressive dream of post-ethnic culture. It probably depends on whether you’re white. One thing is clear, though: if you run these commercials with a black beatboxer, Grand Marnier becomes a black brand.
I guarantee that in one of the creative meetings for this commercial, someone mentioned Courvoisier as a cautionary tale. Thus does Dan Marnier become a metaphor for contemporary American advertising, where everybody loves black culture, and “everybody” is presumed to be white.