Hip-Hop Label's Foray Into Vodka Business Stirs Controversy

A leading hip-hop music label is going into the vodka business and wants its artists to plug the booze in their lyrics, provoking outrage from critics who say such efforts promote underage drinking among the genre's overwhelmingly young audience.

Roc-a-fella Records, a division of Vivendi's Universal Music Group, recently released Armadale — a "premium" vodka from Scotland that has already been featured in songs and videos by popular rappers Jay-Z and Cam'Ron. And while Roc-a-fella musicians aren't required to mention the liquor, they'll be "encouraged" to do so, Damon Dash, the CEO for Roc-a-fella, told the Wall Street Journal.

But that's a problem for critics who say the deal crosses the already-fuzzy line of questionable product placement.

"The most troublesome aspect is that rap music is a very popular genre with kids eighteen years of age and younger," said Melissa Caldwell, director of research for the Parents Television Council. "It's disturbing that they are using this venue to advertise vodka."

Experts at substance abuse centers agreed.

"All of us need to think about the messages we are sending to our young people about substances that are addictive, and certainly alcohol, vodka, has that potential," said Bill Foster, senior vice president at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Dash, 31, isn't naïve about the sway his label's musicians exercise over fans. In fact, he says he was inspired to make the deal after he noticed the buzz created by Jay-Z's mention of Belvedere vodka in one of his songs.

"We know what influence we have over our demographic, and we like to capitalize on every opportunity," Dash told the Journal. Officials at Roc-a-fella records did not return repeated calls for this story.

Some of those who admit the partnership is troubling say the public long ago lost the war against product placement, and shouldn't be surprised over such pairings.

"What is culturally insidious makes perfect business sense," said Matthew Felling, media director for the Center for Media and Public Affairs, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "Country singers hawk beer. Hip-hop singers hawk premium liquor ... It is a concern, but there's nothing you can do about it."

Felling also noted celebrities have endorsed a host of products — not all of them morally pure — for years.

"We don't see the same wrath waged against the James Bond movies with an infinite amount of corporate sponsors, including adult drinks," he said. On the Bond Web site, the British spy's partners include Finlandia vodka, Bollinger champagne and Heineken beer.

That didn't fly with the critics.

"You don't see James Bond binge drinking before he goes out on one of his escapades — the movies depict moderate, responsible drinking among adults," Foster said. "I'm not confident the images being represented through the music is of adult, moderate, responsible drinking."

Roc-a-fella Records, like other entertainment companies that have been accused of barraging kids with harmful messages, told the Journal that parents are responsible for policing their children. Others rejected that notion as a tired excuse.

"If I see a child in the middle of the street and it's not a good place for them to be, I'm not going to leave them there because I'm not their parent," Foster said. "I think as adults we are responsible to help give kids good messages, and corporations should take that responsibility."

But what, if anything, can be done about it is another matter. Caldwell suggested executives push more wholesome messages.

"This was probably created by and can be solved by the free market," she said. "We believe there is a demand for more family-friendly entertainment. Will Smith, for example, is tremendously successful, and he earned a reputation for being a clean artist."

It's not that simple to Felling.

"In a sense, Will Smith is to rap as Bill Cosby is to comedy — the practitioner you can take your parents to," he said.

Foster suggested the best option is for the entertainment industry to grow up and police itself.

"I'd encourage these people to quietly sit and think about what they want their children to experience," he said. "We have a free society, people can say what they choose to say, but that doesn't excuse people from thinking about the responsibility of what they are saying."