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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sex anyone? Try a pint of Hercules...

Sex anyone? Try a pint of Hercules...

SEX in alcohol advertising is nothing new. Agencies world-wide have been successfully

convincing men that drinking beer makes them attractive to beautiful women for years.

But if you ever wondered exactly what Cambodian wine and whiskey contains that can

purportedly turn ordinary men into a muscle-bound love machines, you are not alone.

No consumer or government official interviewed seems to know exactly what it is either.

More than 30 factories have been licensed by the Ministry of Industry, Mines and

Energy to make wine and whiskey in the past two years. Many of the brands promote

not so much an image of looking sexy, but being sexy after drinking it. The marques

are inelegant as far as wine brands go, but effective. "Wrestler", "Hercules"

and "Great Strength" all feature muscular body builders on the labels.

Not to be outdone, "Weightlifter" shows a brutally-strong looking woman

with large veins roped around her sinewy thighs.

"Mike Tyson" wine has reportedly lost market share since the American boxer

was pummeled in his last bout. "Black Chicken" is back in circulation,

despite the owner suffering the indignity of a few broken limbs from two unsatisfied

customers in 1994. "It worked really well for two or three months ... then nothing,"

a former user recalls of the wine's touted effect on the libido. "I don't drink

any of this stuff any more."

Concoctions of palm wine, roots, bark and herbs have been on the Cambodian market

for years and hawking their virility potential is nothing new. Photographer Al Rockoff

recently photographed a medicine show roaming the countryside. The crescendo of the

act was a monkey trained to take a drink of the potion on cue and graphically demonstrate

its sexual prowess for the crowd.

Marketing techniques are being refined somewhat. A "Great Strength Wine"

television commercial shows a bottle-blond muscle man, followed by a long tilt shot

up the Eiffel Tower. "Hercules" has offered free T-shirts and stickers

for cyclo drivers and produces 500 riel sachets for individual use. "Wrestler"

distinguishes itself from the rest by printing it contains "real red grape extract"

on the label next to its body builder. Bottles of "Red Toro Special Liquor"

bear a picture of a large red bull, the epitome of masculinity. The message behind

the "Royale" whiskey logo, a king of hearts sticking a sword into its head,

defies casual analysis.

Sales of commercially-bottled liquor have been particularly good since 17 people

died last Khmer New Year in Phnom Penh drinking unlabeled wine. "We have organized

a television campaign telling people not to drink palm wine if they don't know the

location of production," says Phnom Penh's Municipal Hygiene and Epidemiology

Office director Mom Ky. "We recommend not to drink any wine without a label."

What killed the imbibers is still a matter of speculation. Results from samples sent

to France by the Ministry of Commerce found six times the normal standards of methanol.

Earlier, the Ministry of Health performed a rudimentary analysis locally and found

insecticides in the samples they took.

The Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy conducts periodic tests on the spirits

it licenses. "Every three months we take a sample and look for excessive amounts

of methanol and eight other harmful substances," says Office of Technology chief

Ping Sivlay. "We issue a certificate if the result is good. If it isn't we warn

them and take samples again after one or two weeks. We have never had to shut down

a factory.

"I'm not sure what makes you strong from some of these brands. Foreigners are

surprised to find that pesticides give the feeling of strength. They do indeed, but

we do not allow them in the brands we license. Some like 'Hercules' import medicinal

herbs from Malaysia. Others like 'Le Whisdi' put the same amount of protein in each

bottle as two chickens. They put four to six kinds of vitamins in it too," he

says.

Once on the market, the Ministry of Commerce may eventually play a major role in

quality control if a law is passed. At present, it has neither the authority nor

facilities to test wine, whiskey or any locally-produced product. "If we want

to regulate products, we must have a legal framework, trained staff and a laboratory,"

says the ministry's Camcontrol deputy director Khlauk Chuon. "Until a law passes

and we have the means to implement it and penalize people, we are powerless to test

or seize goods in the market place.

"We have finalized a draft law on products and services, rating all products

that can be harmful to the consumer which awaits consideration of the Council of

Ministers, but there are objections from some ministries," he says. "At

first the ministers were enthusiastic, but strange events like Sirivudh and the Khmer

Rouge split have come up. We have to have cooperation between all ministries and

I believe we are moving in that direction."

In the meantime, consumers have to use their judgment weighing the potential costs

and benefits of drinking Cambodian wine. "I like to drink wine because it makes

you strong," says a motorcycle-taxi driver. He claims that he talks about women

when he drinks it, but does not feel a surge in libido apart from the general effects

of alcohol. "After a few bottles with friends we all feel hot inside, especially

after drinking chicken wine. Stout is better and makes you feel hot inside also,

but we are too poor to drink it."

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