Take absinthe. For much of this century the world treated it like cocaine or LSD, declaring it a dangerous hallucinogenic. But in the past two decades the screws have been loosened and now over 100 brands are available worldwide, including a number in Australia.
Its country of origin, Switzerland, is now mounting a major export drive into the US. And what do you think the ads depict? All the free-wheeling licentious activities of the late 19th century that got the drink banned in the first place.
Kubler, a major Swiss distiller, is making a major push into the States with a campaign featuring absinthe-fuelled scenes reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec paintings. In competition, several rival campaigns feature the mystique of absinthe-preparations as the liquor is poured into a glass over a lump of sugar sitting on a slotted spoon. Find the right promotion and you’ll get a free slotted spoon attached.
In Australia, the import of absinthe has been permitted since 2000, but awareness has been slow to grow. Now displays have started to spring up in wine merchants, even in the airport arrival halls, while the trendier bars have been busily inventing new absinthe-based cocktails.
The large wholesalers now carry a number of brands like Green Fairy from the Czech Republic, Pernod from France and Upsynth distilled in Austria.
What a fine line there is between legal and illegal. Laudanum was the wonder drug of the 18th and 19th centuries used to treat everything from colds to yellow fever. Now its opiate content puts it high on the hit-list of illegal drugs.
Marijuana trading is a hanging offence in parts of the world and a major crime in the rest. Yet the urban myth persists (perhaps backed by the truth?) that the large tobacco companies have registered names like Acapulco Gold and Lebanese Red in case it ever becomes legal again.
Forty years ago in most of this country it was illegal to buy a beer after 6pm. Now you can quite legally order cocktails at three in the morning.
In most of the United States and much of the rest of the world, prostitution is an offense that pits organised crime against rigid law enforcement. Here in Victoria where it’s legal, our fancy brothels have become tourist attractions.
What’s next on the legal roller-coaster? Obviously cigarettes are well in the firing line. Already it’s illegal to smoke in restaurants and pubs, not to mention offices and factories.
So the addicted masses huddle around doorways in every town and city furtively puffing their fags – and making sure they are not too close to that doorway because that’s a crime too.
A week ago at an event in China, smoking was not just allowed but encouraged – a stack of cigarette packs was placed on every table. The young Australians with me, almost all non-smokers, fell on the gaspers and were soon raising a cloud of their own, even smoking between courses. Ah, how thin the veneer of civilisation, I thought.
So expect to see, soon, magazine ads with turn-of-the-century revellers, Van Gough trimming his ears, Parisian bordellos and all the exciting immorality associated with the legend of absinthe.
Ray Beatty runs MarketingSolutions, a consultancy advising companies on how to turn around their unsuccessful advertising campaigns.