Last weekend, I was traveling back into New York by way of the West Side Highway when I passed this billboard:
This ad is particularly insidious because parsing out its (many) missteps first requires that we tackle its problematic foundation: that sex work is not a legitimate occupation and that its illegitimacy permits us to freely belittle and degrade those who in engage in this work – while using wildly offensive, incorrect language to describe them. As if the premise of the billboard wasn’t troubling enough, the Miami Marketing Group (MMG) – the company responsible – further dehumanizes its subjects by suggesting that there is a material difference in value between an “escort” and a “hooker” and that this difference is directly linked to how society commodifies their labor.
With this slogan, MMG tells us not only that it is okay to reduce people’s work to cheap humor, but also that we can evaluate their actual worth (“quality”) according to how they are compensated; by extension, Wódka vodka presents a great deal – a high quality product at a low price. This logic almost makes us forget that we’re talking about human beings, not vodka.
As it turns out, a few weeks ago Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer contacted the advertising group and asked them to remove the billboard from the West Side Highway – calling it “highly inappropriate” – after community members succeeded in having it taken down in the Bronx. The company did not take down the sign and instead its president Brian Gordon told the Daily News, “Listen, if it’s offensive it’s because the topic is offensive to people and we understand that.” Actually, Mr. Gordon, it’s offensive because it compares real people to cheap vodka.
This is not the first time that Wódka vodka has alienated community members with its branding. In November, its advertisers ran a similarly succinct campaign in New York that read, “Christmas Quality, Hanukkah Pricing.” New Yorkers were swift to denounce this offensive slogan, and the company took down all such billboards in response. It’s unsurprising that this newest campaign has not elicited the same level of collective outrage, but its failure to do so demonstrates a discrepancy in the power of the stakeholders, not that the current billboard is any less damaging.
Citizens rightfully held Wódka accountable for its destructive messaging during its last campaign. It’s critical that we hold them to the same standard this time. Call MMG’s agency at 212.691.6292 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell them that we won’t tolerate this billboard, and not because the subject matter offends our sensibilities.