“Spirited” Away?


If you want to sell something, stamp a bird’s image or name on it. This seems to best sum up the strategy of the alcohol industry. Goose Island Beer, Swan Draught, Woodforde’s Once Bittern Norfolk Ale, Emu Bitter, Kingfisher Premium Lager, Magpie Pale Ale, Bluebird Bitter, First Sparrow Smoked Wheat Ale, and Rude Parrot IPA are just a few examples in this sector’s extensive inventory.

Not only breweries, but liquor producers and winemakers seem obsessed, too. The Famous Grouse blended Scotch whiskey, Grey Goose vodka, Captain Morgan Parrot Bay flavored rum, Black Swan wines, and Kestrel Vintners. Why are dozens of alcoholic beverage manufacturers choosing birds to “hawk” their brands? For that matter, why do companies in general incorporate birds into their ads and logos?

Advertising from a “Bird’s-Eye View”

Relying on our feathered neighbors to promote certain types of products and services makes sense. For instance, the rationale behind the airline industry’s choice of bird-related imagery is easy. Birds fly. What better symbol than an avian one conjures the beauty of soaring through the skies? Hence, we have the eagle of American Airlines, the crane of Japan Airlines, the namesake of Germany’s Condor Flugdienst, the falcon of Air Arabia, and the goose of Turkish airlines.

Advertising also has worked for several products and services with no direct links whatsoever to birds. In commercials, AFLAC’s white duck repeatedly spouts the name of its insurance company—a humorous, off-beat reminder that rhymes with “quack.” Decades before, TV ads featuring Vlasic Pickles’ talking stork elevated that brand to iconic status. Folklore has long associated the stork with maternity (1, 2, 3). Vlasic continues to play on this idea, conjoining it with the craving for pickles that sometimes occurs during pregnancy.

A couple other brands come to mind. Twitter, an online technology company, enables a person to send out short bursts of info, likened to a bird’s “tweet.” That analogy is clever. Unilever’s Dove soap features an avian symbol and moniker. This also works, because these creatures have long been connected with beauty (e.g., Greco-Roman mythology) and purity (e.g., Christianity).

Several bird-themed ads for alcohol products have enjoyed immense success, too. Perhaps this is why so many beer and spirits brands keep flocking to avian themes. To better understand this phenomenon, let’s take a quick look at some of the most well-known ones.

An International Menagerie

Irish brewer Guinness ran one of the most memorable international advertising campaigns of the twentieth century. Featuring many animals (e.g., ostrich, pelican, penguin, sea lion, giraffe, etc.) throughout its series of ads, Guinness indicates that “the most famous of all” its unusual creatures was the toco toucan (4). The bird’s use in its advertising was so poignant that one may see similar images employed today by Irish pubs.

Regarding the bird’s appearance in Guinness’s advertising, British naturalist and author Mark Cocker sees a metaphor for that brewer’s ale, what he describes as, “This black beer…” topped with a “… delicious creamy white head…” (5) However, he also explains, “The bird’s simple colours echoed the graphic black-and-white nature of the drink itself, but otherwise there were no authentic connections.” (6) Moreover, while not native to Ireland, the tropical, large-beaked fowl may have helped the country’s iconic brewer reach out beyond European consumers.

Guinness discontinued using this South American toucan in its ads decades ago, but many brands today still rely heavily on birds to represent their alcoholic products. Captain Morgan recently introduced its Parrot Bay rum, which plays with the pirate-parrot link while incorporating the colorful psittacine to connote the product’s added tropical flavors. Also, several breweries and distilleries have long employed avian imagery evocative of heraldic symbolism. Smirnoff’s double-headed eagle, Anheuser-Busch’s eagle, Wild Turkey’s gobbler, and Hardy’s rooster evoke a kind of age-old, regal-like quality, not unlike the eagle for Barclays banking and financial services and the swan for Swarovski jewelry.

Folks in the beer, wine, and spirits business appear unable to resist the metaphoric power of birds. The appeal is understandable—to a certain degree. Birds are wild, some are exotic, and most are capable of flight. Alcohol possesses analogous characteristics, as a peculiar and distinctive “untamed” beverage. Though a depressant, it produces intoxicating, mood-elevating effects that could be likened at times to “flying.” While such associations still seem contrived at best, I do see them. From a marketing perspective, though, there’s a much larger issue.

Crowded Market

Here’s the problem. Related products using similar ad concepts make standing out from one another difficult, especially when the items and concepts are loosely connected. The American automotive industry demonstrated this point years ago. A plethora of vehicles once sported bird monikers (7), from the Ford Falcon and Plymouth Road Runner to the Buick Skylark and Eagle Talon. Several names for popular cars, such as the Ford Thunderbird, Pontiac Firebird, and Pontiac Sunbird, were based on imaginary avian creatures. Yet the industry’s long-running fascination with birds, even mythical ones, has not turned out well. Good luck today finding any new automobiles named after one.

The market for alcohol, a legal but regulated drug, is obviously different than most. The bird-inspired branding behind Yuengling lager, Grey Goose vodka, André Cold Duck wine, Campbeltown Loch blended Scotch whiskey, and many other beverages doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. But if the trend gets out of hand, beer, wine, and spirits producers will have to change course to differentiate themselves.

For the sake of comparison, just imagine if Sonny the Cuckoo Bird, Toucan Sam, Cornelius the rooster, and the Puffins had to contend with the likes of a Flakey the Finch, Granola Grouse, and a roster of other potential fill-in-the-blank cereal-aisle rivals. Too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.

Don’t let advertising go to the birds.


  1. Tate, P. Flights of Fancy: Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition. Delacorte Press Hardcover Edition. New York: Bantam Dell, 2008. pp. 131-132.
  2. Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, 2006. p. 72.
  3. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. Birds & People. London: Jonathan Cape, Random House, 2013. p. 122.
  4. “Factsheet: Gilroy and Animals”. Guinness Storehouse: http://www.guinness-storehouse.com/en/pdfs/factsheets/factsheet_pdf_7.pdf.
  5. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. p. 334.
  6. Cocker, M, Tipling, D. p. 334.
  7. Snyder, JB. “Thanksgiving List: 13 Cars Named After Birds”, 11/24/2010. Winding Road: http://www.windingroad.com/articles/lists/thanksgiving-list-13-cars-named-after-birds/.


Sailors and Swallows: Clearing up a Tattoo Mystery


Why have sea dogs long inked images of swallows on their chests? Tattoos of aquatic creatures or anchors make sense. Even gulls and albatrosses are not really a stretch. But swallows? What’s the connection?

To answer these questions, let’s back up a bit. We need to consider what swallows typically symbolize. We must also broaden our focus from not just maritime voyages but to all forms of travel. Only then will we be able to unravel the rationale behind this puzzling tattoo.

Good Migrations

First things first. What do swallows signify to most of us? This should be easy. Even folks generally unfamiliar with birds are acquainted with the common expressions, “One swallow does not make a spring” and “One swallow does not a summer make.” In other words, don’t expect the approach of consistently warm weather based on the lone sighting of just one swallow. The reasoning? The bird may simply be an outlier. Such a “forecast” is premature, and folks should wait for more to come. Nevertheless, due to such sayings, we know that people commonly associate swallows with migration, particularly around spring and summer. This link, too, holds positive connotations (1).

Since migration is a form of travel, we can now easily see why swallows are a popular symbol for roving adventurers. KNAUS, a German-based manufacturer of caravans and campers, includes a stylized pair of these birds in their logo. Also, the logo of a yacht racing organization called the Ocean Society—not to be confused with the Oceanic Society, a conservation group—features a swallow. So the association with long-distance movement is at least understandable. We’re getting somewhere!

Bon Voyage

Now on to the link between swallows and the sea. After all, how exactly do animals that fly—not swim—relate to life on board a ship? This is the part of our exploration that gets really interesting.

Until fairly recently swallows were thought to hibernate under the ocean, as indicated previously on this site. A sixteenth-century European archbishop and historian actually noted in his writings that fishermen had been seen pulling slumbering specimens of these birds up from the sea in nets (2, 3, 4). The Portuguese entertained ideas that the swallow “Comes from the sea, flies to the sea,” while Belgians considered the birds “bringers of water to earth” (5).

No wonder the bird became connected with a sailor’s safe return (6). To the human imagination, swallows could tame the sea, even sleep under it. People obviously transferred powers associated with this bird to its inked likenesses. The transfer, though, was not accessible to everyone. Not just any seaman could get a coveted swallow tattoo.

More than Luck

Notoriously superstitious, seafarers once faced overwhelming forces. From turbulent storms and contagion to pirates and mutiny, the possibility of death—by drowning, illness, or conflict—loomed large. Sailors needed all the luck they could get. Back then tattoos were more than a form of personal expression; they served as charms for warding off misfortune and catastrophe. Inked images of swallows were good-luck symbols (7, 8), but in a roundabout way.

Tattoos were, in essence, badges of honor signifying one’s skills and achievement. Only sailors, after 5,000 nautical miles at sea, could acquire an inked swallow image on their chest (9, 10). After 10,000 nautical miles, that person could add another swallow tattoo; however, variations on the theme existed (11). In general, for others onboard, having a fellow sailor return with a high level of experience must have been reassuring. As British writer Jonathan Eyers muses in his book on maritime beliefs and lore, “Perhaps the sailors who originated this tradition were worried anyone who hadn’t already proved themselves a good seaman might ruin the plausibility of the [good-luck] superstition” (12).

So, what’s the take-away message about swallow tattoos? They were as much a status symbol as good-luck charm. And you can still find such imagery today, in the resurgence of old-style sailor tattoos as well as in marketing.


  1. Green, T. The Tattoo Encyclopedia: A Guide to Choosing Your Tattoo. New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 2003. p. 231.
  2. Armstrong, J. Lienhard. “No. 2228: Ancient Explanation of Bird Migration,” Engines of Our Ingenuity. University of Houston: http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi2228.htm.
  3. “Migration of Birds: Early Ideas About Migration,” Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center. U.S. Geological Survey: http://www.npwrc.usgs.gov/resource/birds/migratio/ideas.htm.
  4. Bond, A. “How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark,” 11/3/2013. The Lab and Field: http://labandfield.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/bird_migration/.
  5. Pitre, G. The Swallow Book: The Story of the Swallow Told in Legends, Fables, Folk Songs, Proverbs, Omens and Riddles of Many Lands. Camehl, AW. (Translator). New York: American Book Company, 1912. pp. 114, 95.
  6. Green, T. p. 231.
  7. Green, T. p. 231.
  8. Eyers, J. Don’t Shoot the Albatross!: Nautical Myths and Superstitions. London: A & C Black, 2012. p. 31.
  9. Green, T. p. 231.
  10. Eyers, J. p. 31.
  11. Barkham, P. “Tattoos: The Hidden Meanings,” 6/26/2012. The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2012/jun/26/tattoos-hidden-meanings.
  12. Eyers, J. p. 31.