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Diageo cold as Ice over new US drinking craze

There’s a fresh marketing craze sweeping the drinks world, only this time the brand owners themselves have no control over who sees it or what’s involved.

Diageo, the most obvious beneficiaries, are quick to distance themselves from having anything to do with it, yet its rapid rise in the US over the past month would have any sales and marketing department patting themselves heartily on the back and putting together the case for their pay-rises to take to the boss.

Its name is ‘Icing’, and it has well and truly blurred the line between advertising, popular culture and the encouragement of binge drinking. It also puts the world’s biggest drinks company in a very difficult, if slightly enviable position.

The premise behind Icing is simple enough. One guy hands his friend a bottle of Smirnoff Ice and they have to drink it while down on one knee, unless the recipient is also carrying a bottle himself, in which case the original attacker must down both bottles of what participants think to be a “pretty terrible drink”, according to the New York Times.

It has risen from obscurity as recently as May this year to become one of the America’s hottest pastimes among young people. Stores across the country are selling out of the pre-mix vodka drink at a rate of knots, so you would think Diageo would be pretty pleased with the situation. Then again, this is a company that prides itself on its promotion of responsible alcohol consumption.

“The ‘icing’ drinking game phenomenon was not created by and is not supported by Diageo, and it is not representative of the responsible consumption of our products that we promote,” droned the predictably mundane reaction of the company’s US office. “We encourage those adults who choose to drink to do so responsibly.”

It is hard to imagine, though, that behind closed doors the company is not rubbing its hands with glee as the phenomenon single-handedly brings the fading RTD back into fashion, albeit in a self-deprecating manner.

University of Central Florida student Kevin Wolkenfield told the New York Times: “Guys who would never buy [Smirnoff Ice] before are even buying it now to shield against attacks.”

El Sayed Hayed, who owns a grocery store in Charleston, told the paper that the sudden upsurge in demand for Smirnoff Ice had caught him unawares.

“It all started last week, people buying Smirnoff Ice like crazy,” he said. “This is the first year this happens.”

Whether it lasts or not, the phenomenon will certainly create a spike in Smirnoff Ice sales figures which completely contradicts the contracting nature of the RTD market.

Dick Martin, a former executive vice president of AT&T and an expert in the field of branding and marketing, pointed out that despite the massive uplift in sales, Diageo would naturally be desperate to disassociate itself with the craze, which has become one of the biggest viral drinking phenomenon’s in history thanks to websites such as, which allows people all over the US and beyond to share their icing experiences.

“Beyond the implicit slur on the beverage’s taste, I doubt any alcoholic beverage company would want to be associated with a drinking game that stretches the boundaries of good taste and common sense like this one does,” he said.

“It’s too obviously a self-destruct button on all their ‘drink responsibly’ advertising.”

So where does all this leave Diageo? The company is currently taking a very low profile amid discussions of the craze, presumably to avoid people making assumptions that it has somehow created an elaborate viral marketing scheme to bring Smirnoff Ice back under the radar of young people.

Yet it is only a matter of time, as with all things, that somebody will take things a little too far and end up doing something that will bring shame on the Smirnoff Ice name.

The fact that the game has been branded up with the Smirnoff ice moniker was not of Diageo’s doing, but ultimately it is responsible for the brand’s reputation and image among the business and consumer world.

The company’s silence might well come back to ‘Ice’ it in the near future.

Alan Lodge, 16.06.2010

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