When I saw comedian Lilly Singh’s ad about her Johnnie Walker sponsored Diwali party just last month, my first thought was that not every brand partnership is a good partnership.
The ad featured a nod to her father who she mentioned collected alcohol bottles growing up—specifically, Johnnie Walker. My heart immediately sank and I was filled with a flood of emotions. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
Comedian and former YouTuber Lilly Singh partnered with infamous alcohol brand Johnnie Walker back in December 2020. The partnership was based on the release of the brand’s new limited edition whiskey, Jane Walker—which focused on empowering women and breaking boundaries within the typically male dominated alcoholic beverage industry.
Especially with whiskey, there has been a typically masculine connotation associated with the product and those who it aims to entice, making Jane Walker a groundbreaking addition.
During the initial press tour, Lilly put an emphasis on how this campaign is working to empower women. In an interview with Insider Magazine, she pointed out how the campaign was about more than just promoting alcohol. It was about the “First Women” campaign, which was looking to celebrate trailblazing women and provide funding opportunities for other women to help create their paths. Furthermore, in 2022, they added the “First Strides” which hoped to inspire more women to enter the political field.
However, despite the feminist spin on the campaign, this collaboration just doesn’t sit right with me. There’s no doubt that Lilly Singh is a powerful, accomplished woman who has broken many glass ceilings around the globe. However, I think there’s a more nuanced conversation that is still missing around this partnership.
To be clear, this isn’t about the fact that a Brown woman is partnering with an alcohol brand. Lilly has also partnered with companies like Bud Light which I had no issue with. It was a fun ad and I am all for women, especially in the South Asian community, owning the fact that they enjoy a good drink here or there. I love a good scotch on the rocks or glass of wine, but there’s only one brand out there that sends me into a spiral of traumatic memories.
Although it may not be infamous around the world, Johnnie Walker is definitely infamous amongst South Asians—particularly within the Punjabi community.
Throughout the years, across Canada, the U.S. and U.K., the Johnnie Walker emblem has become a symbol for the “desi drunk unc,” that is humorously attached to that family member who relies heavily on the bottle and tends to get messy at family gatherings
However, this stereotype that we know all too well hides something much darker. It’s a stereotype that was a part of my reality for many years and had a significant impact on my life, and still does until this day.
I remember growing up seeing the Johnnie Walker stamp sitting on the shelf of my dad’s bar in the basement. As a 5-year-old, I had a blast taking that stamp and putting it everywhere. My small crayon drawings of flowers on construction paper with Johnnie Walker on it like a signature. At first, I always loved seeing it there. It was a reminder of my dad who I rarely got to see, but as time went on, it slowly became a symbol I grew to fear and resent.
For as long as I can remember, every single night, my father would sit down with his bottle of Red or Black Label for a night cap. What started off as one drink, would quickly become four or five. I saw that label every single day.
I watched my father drink himself into oblivion and lose himself in the process. I watched him struggle with alcoholism and substance-use disorders for over a decade until he was left as a shell of himself.
My story is not uncommon.
Johnnie Walker is a staple I’ve seen in many Punjabi households . Bottles of Red, Black, Blue, Green and Gold Label—symbols of a dark truth we leave out of conversations as often as we can. There is a very real substance-use problem ingrained into our culture.
It’s something that our community has often swept under the rug, but there is a history of trauma being perpetuated and passed down due to the relationship many men in the community have with alcohol. In the South Asian community, men are often pushed to maintain ‘strength’ at all times as the providers for their families and lack safe spaces to explore and navigate their feelings. Many men look towards other, albeit unhealthy, outlets to release the tension they feel.
In addition, it seems like Lilly is aware of the connotation that Johnnie Walker brings. In her Mother’s Day campaign with the brand, Lilly specifically calls out the culture of uncles drinking and women hiding it, but it failed to go any deeper. This campaign especially stuck out because she played into the specific nuances of Punjabi culture when it’s profitable for her—but ignoring glaring social and community issues that she doesn’t benefit from adequately addressing.
Overall, I think Johnnie Walker’s brand has a very different meaning to some members of the Punjabi community—like myself. To me, it isn’t necessarily something that sparks conversations about elegance, innovation, or even “progress,” as Lilly’s ad posits, but instead a horrible reminder of traumatic childhoods, hall party brawls and instances of domestic violence that stemmed from someone sitting down with a bottle of Black Label.
Moreover, Lilly has used this partnership to host events related to Diwali and more with her friends and colleagues in Hollywood. Although I think it’s great that she’s putting South Asian culture on the map and I’ll be the first to say how much I love seeing some of my childhood and current faves throw on sarees and party it up, I feel like the culture is being corrupted by having events like these sponsored by an alcohol brand. Diwali is a holy day for many around the world and associated with visits to the temple, connecting with family and bringing light to the world, not partying and drinking.
Nearly two years in, it looks as though this brand partnership will become a staple of Lilly Singh’s empire, however, I believe it is important to point out the potential harm that is perpetuated through this narrative.
In this day and age, our social presence and who we align ourselves with is a direct reflection of our values and beliefs. We live in a world where attention is now a form of currency and the attention this partnership draws, to me, is not worth it. The Lilly Singh/Johnnie Walker partnership looks more like diasporic moral confusion than something to be boasting about.
With such a huge platform, it would have been amazing to see Lilly step up and speak out about issues like this, especially when she is already a very outspoken mental health advocate. She’s established herself as a well-known celebrity and truly does have the pick of the litter for brand partnerships. Making an active choice to go with Johnnie Walker despite the brand identity within the Punjabi community seems like a loss all around and only glamourizes its consumption in our community.
Despite my personal feelings on the campaign, I do hope it can become a conversation that can help open up more truthful and honest commentary about mental health and substance use in the Punjabi community.
We still have a long way to go.
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