We don’t see wine advertisements much on TV these days or hear them on the radio. But from the 1960s through the 1980s there was plenty of advertising for mass-market wines. I’ve written about these ads before, and how ridiculous most of them were. But one set stands out for the right time and the right touch – the radio ads Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara made for Blue Nun.
Jerry Stiller died on May 11, and the tributes focused mainly on his recurring role as George Costanza’s father on Seinfeld (and being Ben Stiller’s father). I watched Seinfeld only occasionally. But I have vivid memories of family car trips with the radio tuned to WQXR, New York’s commercial classical music station. Stiller and Meara’s Blue Nun ads were in heavy rotation.
I don’t know how many other stations ran the spots, but they were just right for WQXR’s audience. Unlike Orson Welles’s Paul Masson TV ads (with the ponderous “We will sell no wine before its time,” despite there being no “time” when Paul Masson wines would taste any better), the Blue Nun radio ads told you that you were getting a pleasant adult beverage. I can still recite some of the dialogue today:
Meara: Where have you been? It’s almost dinner time.
Stiller: I stopped and picked up a little Blue Nun.
Meara: Couldn’t you just leave an extra dollar in the collection plate?
The TV ads for Blue Nun didn’t use Stiller and Meara, and were likely intended for some laughs, too. But they were way too obvious. The one I remember was a nun dressed in light blue doing a figure skating routine in soft-focus. Yeah, we get it, Blue Nun on ice. Whatever. The Stiller and Meara radio ads were aimed squarely at people who would recognize the style of George Burns and Gracie Allen, along with some of the extra sophistication of “His Girl Friday” and all the “Thin Man” movies. They got updated for a younger audience first by the couple not drinking cocktails, which would make them seem dated. Then there was a little innuendo, a clear indication that there would be other activity going on after quaffing the goods. Who knows how many post-baby boomers were conceived after a little tipple, quite possibly Blue Nun?
There was also a downside. I think it’s likely that Blue Nun and some of the other mass-market German wines contributed to a general distrust of Riesling and Gewürztraminer (even though Blue Nun and other low-priced German exports were made mostly from Müller-Thurgau grapes – which can be good, but are generally nothing special). To be fair, it happened with other mass-market wines, too. Reunite made Lambrusco kind of a joke, and I think that Mateus and Lancers set Portuguese wines back for decades (Portugal’s dictatorship didn’t help in matters of quality, either). It took an interest in non-US and non-European food, along with a greater awareness of wines in general, to get the US public to come around on what are some of the world’s finest wines.
But that doesn’t take away from the quality and success of Stiller and Meara’s ads. They were by far the best of the bunch, and they put across the idea that wine could be more of an everyday beverage. I don’t think it’s a stretch to argue that the ads influenced the naming and marketing of some later, higher-quality wines as well. Like Randall Graham’s Cigare Volant, for example. Yes, it has some sort of historical basis, which makes it seem more legit than a Blue Nun. But what does a flying cigar have to do with wine? I can only imagine the fun Stiller and Meara would have had with it.