"A woman who knows how to pick a horse": Close-reading the surreally sexist bourbon ads that air during "Mad Men"

According to these Woodford Reserve ads, real women like bourbon, horses and men who build (not Ikea) bookshelves

Published May 12, 2014 2:37PM (EDT)

                  (AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)
(AMC/Frank Ockenfels 3)

Most of us probably didn’t pay a lot of attention to the commercials aired throughout last night’s episode of “Mad Men,” you know, because of all the threesomes and nipple-severing that were going down. (Happy Mother’s Day!) If, by chance, you were watching the ads, you would have seen a preview for the upcoming Godzilla movie, an ad for Geico Motorcycle insurance, and a terrifying Prudential commercial in which we all learned that we probably don’t have enough money to ever retire. Watching a show about ad execs, it’s tempting to close-read the commercials that air during it. Many seem vaguely designed to capture the spirit of “Mad Men,” but none so egregiously as the surreal bourbon ads from Woodford Reserve.

A few weeks back, during an episode of “Mad Men,” the world collectively wrinkled its nose while watching the first of these ads, which featured an assortment of bearded men, hammocks, some kind of slam-poetry voice-over, some casual misogyny and, of course, a whole lot of bourbon. In it, a woman recounts the sort of things she thinks about when she sees a man drinking this form of alcohol (spoiler alert: she thinks he can build her a bookshelf, a GOOD bookshelf, not that ready-made crap from Ikea).

The woman speaking in the ad declares, “He’ll let me use a saw and not find it cute … that I don’t know how to use a saw.” I have a lot of feelings about this, but hold up -- girl, WHAT?! You don’t know how to use a saw? Saws are arguably the most intuitive tools in the world besides hammers or tape measures or your very own hands.

Moving on, though -- we endured this commercial, we rightfully condemned it to its weird, offensive corner, and we proceeded to watch “Mad Men” like nothing had ever happened. Then, of course, Woodford Reserve flipped the script on us. In a second ad, a male voice-over (twist!) provided his thoughts on the matter.

Apparently when this guy sees a woman drinking bourbon, he thinks she can tell a story to a table full of people “without giving up full possession of the details … because then it would be their story, not hers.” Now, this one doesn’t strike me as particularly misogynistic -- just odd, really. I mean, as a woman, when I tell stories to a table full of people, I typically provide all of the details, every single one, but then at the end I make sure to lean in and say, “I swear to God, you spineless mouth-breathers, if you tell this story to anyone else and pretend it happened to you, I will gut your bowels out,” but I’m usually drinking Chardonnay when that happens, so I don’t know what that guy is talking about.

So yes, another confusing ad, no big deal, but hang on -- the plot thickens! Woodford Reserve has now released even more of these nonsensical commercials to the public, and you can watch them all right now on their YouTube channel. They are all some variation of weird, but this next ad is the one that has been haunting my dreams lately:

Here, we have a blond, turtle-necked woman laughing with friends, petting a horse and, of course, clutching her bourbon. Thematically, it's similar to all of the other ads, but it's the voice-over here that is particularly cringe-inducing. The people at Woodford Reserve have actually taken down this original version of the ad, hoping we would all forget it ever existed, and replaced it with one that is slightly less offensive (yet still entirely crazy). Little did they know that this commercial had already kind of become my obsession. (Here it is!) Let’s explore that original transcript line-by-line, shall we? Here goes:

“When I see a woman drinking bourbon, I expect she’s the kind of woman who knows how to pick a horse …”

The level of specificity here is interesting to me, and because of it, I have several follow-up questions. For instance, why are we picking horses? Is it for racing, for pulling a carriage or, god forbid, for eating? What about this woman’s drinking habits makes her capable of picking a horse? I’d rather have someone make a selection for me who has not been drinking, but that’s just me. Also, what makes a horse good or bad? Is it the hooves?

“… not because she likes the name or the color of the horse. She’ll simply know when she’s in the presence of a winner.”

I’m sorry, friend, but that is garbage. I’m assuming now that we’re betting on horse races, maybe? And everyone knows that you’re supposed to pick the horse with the best name. If you gave me a list of horses whose names were Maple, Anna, Virginia, Autumn and Octavia Spencer, you better believe I’m putting all of my money on my girl Octavia. And if she’s purple, even better.

“She’ll notice my uncertainty as I make my selection, but will offer no advice, and I’ll simply know I’m in the presence of a winner.”

OK, now I’m back to thinking we’re not betting on horses. Maybe this lady is a horse handler, and for the record, if anyone were selling me a horse, regardless of what they were drinking, I’d assume they know how to choose one. Also, why is it a good thing that she’s not offering her skilled advice? I wasn’t even going to play my Sexism Card until he said that (totally kidding, it was on the table when he said the thing about picking a horse by its color). This ad teaches me as a woman that when a man is confused and I could easily help him, it’s probably best to just shut my trap while he pretends to know what he’s doing. He might end up accidentally picking a cat instead of a horse, but at least he can keep his pride.

It tickles me that Woodford Reserve has enough self-awareness to restructure this horse ad but still stands by the one about the bookshelf-crazed girl who can’t use a saw. Also, there is certainly a sort of sad significance to premiering this ad campaign in the midst of an episode of “Mad Men.” Clearly Woodford Reserve thought its bizarre ad would find a nice little spot in the hearts of men who see the world through Don Draper’s eyes. It’s possible it mistook “Mad Men’s" fans for “Mad Men’s" characters. Still, I don’t even think Don Draper would want to hang out with the hipsters in these commercials.

Back to the issue of sexism, though. I could rant for a while about why I find these ads so deplorable. They project this idea of a woman that I suspect might not even exist – a chill girl who swills strong liquor, tells cheeky stories while wearing turtlenecks, and shuts up when her male counterpart needs to make a goddamn decision.

But messages like the ones in these Woodford Reserve ads are sadly not at all rare. The reason these commercials in particular send me over the edge has more to do with the fact that I simply cannot relate to the message of judging someone by his or her beverage choice. When I see someone drinking bourbon, I think, “What’s that they’re drinking?” because I don’t know the difference between my dark alcohols. You could be drinking a Diet Pepsi in a fancy tumbler, for all I know. Are you? Well then no way are you capable of picking a horse.

By Christy O'Shoney

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A Woman Who Knows How To Pick A Horse Bourbon Mad Men Video Woodford Reserve