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
"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
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."