The notorious tonic wine’s impressive attempts to appeal to stressed women as a way of coping with the nightmare of running a household.
Cheap, nasty but inexpensive alcohol is in many ways a vital aspect of modern culture. Where, I ask you, would we be if we didn’t all have a teenage horror story involving the usual cast of suspects – Mad Dog 2020, Thunderbird or similar? It’s character-building. Where we in the UK prevail, however, is with one beverage in particular – Buckfast Tonic Wine. It’s often been said that you can get used to anything, given time, and so we’ve perhaps lost sight of the incredibly odd route that brings Buckfast to our shelves. When you think of it, the whole premise of a bunch of Benedictine monks ever making a drink typically associated with problem drinking and delinquency is a strange quirk; presumably, God looks the other way and doesn’t take note of cold, hard facts such as how, in 2013, 2,239 crimes were reported to Strathclyde Police that specifically mentioned Buckfast (and that was up to August). Sometimes referred to as ‘Wreck The Hoose Joose’ by its appreciative Scottish fan base, Buckfast is certainly in a league of its own.
Why is it so popular? Well, firstly it’s cheap, it’s strong, and it’s chock-full of caffeine and sugar; it’s less a sipping wine and more a set of jump leads. Its reputation proceeds it, too, and there’s bound to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy to it now, the go-to drink of choice if you want to get off your head at little detriment to your wallet and to join the hallowed many with a Buckie-related tale to tell. That all being said, it’s loosely intended for ‘medicinal’ purposes, being a tonic wine and all – a claim that is hotly contested even today, with a legal requirement to counterclaim that it isn’t health-boosting at all. But, back at the point that the Buckfast monks were taken under the wing of a distribution company called J. Chandler and Company, it was perhaps decided that the firm needed to impress upon people that it was, in fact, intended to be consumed for one’s health.
Tonic wines are a bit of an oddity in themselves, bridging the gap between the old beliefs that a nip of something or other alcoholic would do you good, and the burgeoning trade in vitamins and other dietary supplements. They have also historically tended to be marketed to women, again perhaps based on the errant belief that women’s constitutions simply aren’t very robust, their ‘nerves’ getting the better of them. One could argue that if the job of housewifery is so incredibly agitating and/or deathly dull that you need a mildly altered state just to tolerate it, then the problem’s with the role, not the woman, but nonetheless, the likes of Sanatogen proudly sold tonics to women “to make life much more bearable”, giving them something to wash the valium down with. You can see what the marketing strategists at Buckfast were thinking; perhaps also relevant is that, on the whole, bored housewives are less inclined to neck the lot and start a fight in the street, so in a sense, it was an image overhaul for them. Buckfast is still, however, a big ask as a health-sustaining, tasty, all-round good idea. Just look at what happened when they tried.
“When everything’s an effort!” announces the slogan that hovers just above a very coiffed disembodied head, the woman’s face etched with annoyance. This is, apparently, what it looks like when you’re suffering from ‘day to day tension’ leaving you ‘overwrought’, though whether a glass of Buckie is indeed the way to life being ‘worth living’ again remains unknown. It’s a reasonable question, that: did any women heed the advertising, take up regular Buckfast consumption and then try to go about the business of the day? I don’t fancy their chances much. I do like the idea that Buckfast can be enjoyed as an aperitif, though. It would certainly put an interesting spin on a dinner party.
But perhaps my absolute favourite in the ‘housewives on Buckfast’ genre probably owes a lot to the photo montage style stories which often illustrated problem page letters back in the 70s and 80s. A bewildered-looking woman is clearly struggling with the chores of the day – i.e., buying some vegetables – and wanders through town with her shopping with all the enthusiasm of someone who’s just been told they’re going to be gunned down when they reach home. She’s only got to fucking cook dinner when she gets in, as well – there’s simply no end to it.
But luckily, Buckfast is at hand to save the remainder of this awful day. The emphasis here is much more on using the product to unwind, rather than using the product to feel in any way healthier, but perhaps this is a rare moment of advertising honesty: doesn’t she look happier in the final image, after all? Her husband’s thoughts on the missus downing a glass or three of Buckfast every evening are unrecorded, but frankly, he could only be in favour of such a happy outcome. The slogan “It’s all to your good” is a nice, final touch, whether or not it’s a blatant lie.
Whilst an epidemic of female violence doesn’t seem to have taken place, Buckfast clearly struggled to find its genteel, feminine market and indeed it hasn’t advertised at all in decades, to women or anyone else; the drink’s reputation has been hotly debated in the press particularly since the 90s, with the monks themselves distancing themselves from any such debates, preferring to let J. Chandler managing director Anthony Joyce take the reins and speak on their behalf – when he does, he usually cites other factors, such as endemic poverty, as the real reasons behind the spates of violence which still get blamed on the brand. If anything, Buckfast now seeks to minimise its presence rather than advertise it: the debates around the drink usually tend towards its negative issues: its dubious status as a tonic, its association with criminality, and so on.
As for women, with far more quaffable wines growing in both affordability and acceptability since the 70s, they’re far more likely to opt for a Chardonnay than a bottle of Commotion Lotion. A lot more women work outside the home, too, so appeals to an escape from the tedium of staying at home would fall flat these days; we’ve progressed to drinking to forget the day job, it seems, and we’re pretty open about it too.
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