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Boardwalk Empire, 2013

A state liquor board investigation into bars in New Jersey discovered that little has changed since Prohibition; bars on the boardwalks of the Garden State are still serving swill and charging customers premium prices.

As this piece in Slate explains, what you get is often what you don’t want:

 “In one instance, a bar in New Jersey mixed rubbing alcohol with caramel food coloring and served it as scotch,”writes Brent Johnson in the Star-Ledger.* “In another, a bar filled an empty liquor bottle with dirty water and passed it off as liquor.”

One thing that leaps out of this story: most drinkers are wasting their money when paying for premium brands. Most people can’t really tell the difference between the expensive hooch and the off brand stuff, and after a couple of snootfuls many can’t tell the difference between expensive liquor and rubbing alcohol.

One can read this story as a sad commentary on the morals of New Jersey saloon keepers, but it’s also a sharp satire on the vanity of consumers. Liquor marketers know exactly how to play to the public’s insecurities and to the pathetic desire to look like a sophisticate that so many of us nourish in our foolish hearts. Human folly isn’t going anywhere, and every year a bright new crop of 21 year old wannabes walks up to the bar and orders something they think makes them look mature, but it’s worth remembering what the Good Book has to say about this kind of foolish preening: Vanity, vanity, and a striving after wind.

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  • wigwag

    It’s about displaying emblems of success. Most people can’t tell the difference in taste between the coffee in a Starbucks cup or the coffee in a Dunkin Doughnuts cup. But it’s really not about the beverage that the cup holds, it’s about people seeing the logo that adorns the outside of the cup.

    There’s nothing new in this; the upwardly mobile have always been interested in keeping up with the Joneses by displaying emblems of success. In his great book on Shakespeare entitled “Will in the World,” Stephen Greenblatt describes the great efforts that Shakespeare went to in order to be granted a Royally approved crest. As the brilliant son of an alcoholic, indebted glove maker moved up in the world he wanted to show off his new found respectability and possessing a crest was the way to do it in those days.

    Today we walk around with Starbucks cups or order expensive liquor. Professor Mead misses the point of all this if he thinks its an appreciation for the quality of the beverage imbibed that matters.

    Emblems of success have always mattered. They always will. Enterprising young people who want to thrive in the new, more competitive economy should dream up new emblems for upwardly mobile people to show off. There’s lots of money to be made by those who figure this out.

  • Anthony

    “It’s when the society gets much richer and basic needs are met that consumer behavior becomes tricker. In high-income countries such as the United States, we can no longer properly speak of a consumer’s “needs” in the case of the middle class and the rich but only of a consumer’s “wants.” Therein, WRM encases some of that desire you speak to – and advertising executives and corporate brand managers know of which you speak. Manufacturing wants is big business (in real life as you allude to consumers buy things for various reasons including quests for status, cravings, whims, etc.).

  • ljgude

    My mum and dad were from Joisey so I am not completely shocked that bars on the boardwalk are actually serving up rubbing alcohol and slops. It might be helpful to our young folks “putting on the agony, putting on the show”if Hollywood did a scene where the gangsta older brother of a kid who died drinking the stuff goes into one of these bars and hoses down the bottles behind the bar with an Uzi, Edward G Robinson style. 😉

  • f1b0nacc1

    Perhaps it is because it is Memorial Day, but reading this post reminds me of the scene in “Mr. Roberts” where the officers made scotch to help out Ensign Pulver with his attempt at a carnal bribe

  • Sam

    Let’s see them fake a pint of Guinness!

  • Kelly Hall

    This is a scam worthy of Paulie Walnuts. But as you mention, it does speak more to the vanity of the customers than the mendacity of the crooks. It’s like that Sam Adams commercial with the young hipsters posing as craft beer aficionados. I also liked the commercial where customers in an upmarket steak house were told after the fact that their steaks came from Walmart.

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