The latest J&B ads -- A series of wry scotch ads offers wordplay with a visual twist

Scotch-and-water. It has been the nemesis of Roy Grace and Diane Rothschild for the last two and a half years. ”We’ve never been able to illustrate J&B-and-water to our satisfaction…,” Grace says. Rothschild finishes her collaborator’s thought: ”Water is water, so how do you find a visually surprising way to show it? Roy and I have tried, and we aren’t giving up, but ” She shrugs.

Owners of a small Manhattan advertising agency that carries their names, Grace and Rothschild, art director and copywriter respectively, are looking at a gallery of J&B ads that have been less daunting than the dreaded scotch-and-water thing. Their campaign is remarkably entertaining work in a field — liquor advertising — that has become known for creativity and cleverness (the current Absolut vodka campaign is another crowd favorite). The ads almost always make you smile; sometimes, they make you laugh out loud.

The J&B hit parade is tacked to the wall of a Grace & Rothschild conference room that also offers an impressive view of the Manhattan skyline. Grace (53 years old, trim, bald, with a bushy mustache) and Rothschild (44, small-framed, black hair) sit beside each other and sip coffee. When she lights a cigarette, he gives her a hard time for smoking. She playfully snaps back that the brand is low-tar. The Burns and Allen-esque give-and-take of their relationship is on display. ”I give very much,” Rothschild says. On cue, Grace jokingly responds, ”And I do nothing but take.”

Getting serious, Grace explains the chronology of the J&B campaign. ”When J&B came to us, they were looking for something fresher, younger, more alive” than the liquor company’s previous ads, he says.

In other words, a campaign that would woo the financially alluring 25- to 35-year-old market. What J&B got from Grace & Rothschild was a series of visual puns employing the J&B name. ”J&B on a cold night,” for instance, is accompanied by a sculpture of the red, two-letter logo propped atop a suit of armor. Other punny business: ”J&B with a twist” (the logo literally bent out of shape) and ”J&B on ice” (a glittery array of diamonds embellished with the J&B logo).

”This is not heavy humor,” Rothschild says. ”Essentially, this is an attempt to use young, contemporary, David Letterman-style jokes. It’s a silly, dumb approach that centers around puns, which you’re never supposed to use in advertising.” Grace and Rothschild can afford to be self-deprecating; the campaign has won impressive advertising awards (the One Show and Art Directors Club among them).

Back when they were trying to land the account, Grace and Rothschild came up with a markedly different approach: urbane settings and witty dialogue that played to the yuppie market the company was after. It seemed like a winner. Then, just when everything appeared to be in place, the Paddington Corp. (J&B’s parent company) pronounced the concept unacceptable. ”It was an enormous letdown,” Grace recalls. ”We went to bat, expected a home run, and struck out.” They were given three weeks to come up with a new idea.

Then, in the style of a thirtysomething plot, Grace and Rothschild put on a pot of coffee and brainstormed. ”Creating ads is like playing tennis: You volley ideas back and forth until something gets caught in the net,” Grace says. He hesitates for a second, then Rothschild, his creative partner off- and-on for 20 years (they worked on campaigns for Volkswagen and Chivas Regal at Doyle Dane Bernbach before starting their own firm in February 1986), explains: ”It ends up being something like free association. Ideas come from some mysterious place and you keep building on them.”

By the end of the first week, someone (neither remembers who) suggested using the brand’s logo as an integral graphic element in the ads. The other mumbled, ”J&B on the rocks,” and the return volley was a suggestion that ”J&B on the rocks” be illustrated with a pile of stones wearing the logo.

As their deadline approached, Grace and Rothschild came up with a dozen sayings and a few ideas to illustrate them. Elegant design touches — resting ”one-fifth” of the J&B logo on a shiny slab of Italian marble above the headline ”A fifth of J&B,” for example — and richly lit photography gave the images a surrealistic look. Readers — and the client — were hooked.

The two ads that have come closest to breaking the rules of the original concept are ”J&B neat” and ”J&B in a hip joint,” as neither relies on the photography that has become a cornerstone of the advertising. For the first, Grace sloppily printed out the alphabet and inserted the J&B logo letters in the appropriate spots. ”I bought the cheapest supplies I could find and just scrawled the alphabet onto a sheet of yellow paper,” Grace says. ”It would have taken two hours to explain the concept to a commercial artist.” ”Hip joint” was farmed out to a freelance illustrator who came up with a cartoony line drawing of the anatomy. ”A photo of a human hip joint would have been gruesome — unless we were pursuing the orthopedic market,” Grace says.

That the ads rely on pure image-building with nothing in the way of data is of course deliberate. ”Literally talking about the quality of liquor is a waste of time,” Grace says. ”The trick is to position the product so that people want to say the name out loud in front of their friends. Especially for something like Scotch, where there’s no clear-cut benefit to buying it. It doesn’t cure cancer, and it won’t get spots off your carpet.”

Judging from public response, it doesn’t need to. J&B regularly gets mail from magazine readers requesting copies of the ads and submitting their own concepts (which, for legal reasons, are routinely ignored). ”These ads make the readers participate,” Grace says. ”We’ve solved the puzzle for you, but you still get a chance to wrap your mind around it and play with the punch line.”

Grace and Rothschild are taking on new projects, though they’ll continue to work on J&B with a pair of creative teams inside the agency. And there are a number of punch lines and graphics they are still puzzling over. ”We’ve always wanted to do ‘J&B and a check,”’ Rothschild explains, adding that they considered putting Ivana Trump in that one. ”’A shot of J&B,’ illustrated with a Polaroid photo, is another that we like but never executed. Right now we’re working on ‘A case of J&B.”’

What does that entail? A private eye? Packing crates? Roy Grace and Diane Rothschild smile inscrutably and keep the graphics to themselves. J&B, under wraps.