Wild Turkey joins bourbon's TV trend

Wild Turkey's new TV ad features a young  bartender  being instructed by a veteran barman to "Give 'em the Bird" when a tough-looking customer comes in.
Wild Turkey's new TV ad features a young bartender being instructed by a veteran barman to "Give 'em the Bird" when a tough-looking customer comes in.

LOUISVILLE — Wild Turkey's first-ever television ad campaign in the United States offers a new twist to giving someone the bird.

The 157-year-old brand is the latest Kentucky bourbon making a splash on television, showing the once-stodgy category has a sense of humor in projecting a more hip image.

It comes as bourbon rides a wave of popularity, due in part to the comeback of cocktails appealing to younger adults. And it's a sign bourbon is willing to muscle into the marketing terrain of vodka and other spirits.

In the ad that debuted Tuesday, Wild Turkey spreads its "Give 'em the Bird" marketing campaign that first appeared in print and on billboards last year. The commercial shows a young bartender's reluctance to obey a seasoned barman's direction to "just give 'em the Bird" when a tough-looking customer walks in. The novice soon realizes it's another term for serving Wild Turkey.

"I come from Europe, where you normally order a gin and tonic and you don't care what gin you're drinking," said Umberto Luchini, head of marketing for Campari America, which owns Wild Turkey. "You come into the U.S., and it's all about calling brands. Hence, 'Give 'em the Bird' is another way of calling Wild Turkey in a bar."

The ad, running on such cable outlets as ESPN, Comedy Central, Spike, TNT and TBS, is the latest multimillion-dollar investment in Campari's revamping of the storied Wild Turkey brand, made at its distillery near Lawrenceburg.

It also adds momentum to the trend among some bourbon makers to turn increasingly to television and digital advertising. Maker's Mark uncapped its first national TV campaign last year, and the brand has extended its pitch on more cable networks this year.

Jim Beam also is running TV ads promoting its high-end Jim Beam Devil's Cut after focusing on the company's signature Jim Beam bourbon last year.

Heaven Hill Distilleries Inc. went on the air late last year to promote its Evan Williams bourbon, and it will be back with TV commercials in the second half of this year.

Wild Turkey, which dabbled on TV last year in Australia, its second-biggest market, expects more rounds of television advertising in the United States, Luchini said.

Last year, just more than 16 million 9-liter cases of bourbons and Tennessee whiskeys sold in the United States, up nearly 9 percent from 2006 and nearly 23 percent higher than in 2001, according to the Distilled Spirits Council.

"We want to ride this trend," Luchini said. "And that's why we're getting bolder, a bit more aggressive."

Wild Turkey trails Jim Beam, Evan Williams and Maker's Mark in U.S. sales.

Vodka and rum outpace bourbon in spirits advertising on television, but bourbon is staking out more air time. Last year, bourbon marketing was up 58 percent on TV from 2010, with Beam and Maker's Mark the clear driving forces.

Now Wild Turkey is in the mix. Campari spent $50 million on a new distillery near Lawrenceburg that's capable of doubling production. It recently broke ground on a new $44 million packaging facility set to open in fall 2013.