The pounds 1.8bn whisky industry may still be Scotland's biggest exporter, but its domestic customers are literally dying off. It must now woo younger drinkers against desperate odds: only 10 per cent of UK consumers aged 25 to 35 drink whisky (compared with 80 per cent in the 50-plus category).
That's why Bell's Whisky broke the industry's 30-year-old self-imposed ban on telly advertising last September. Yet while young revellers throughout Britain gulp down Hooch, white spirits and premium beers (all boom markets), the whisky trade is caught between need and caution: should it gamble its traditional image in hopes of fresh consumers and risk losing its established customers?
A month after whisky's Christmas peak season, Marketing magazine's "Adwatch" revealed that not a single spirits commercial was memorable enough to register in the Top 20 commercials. More recent research is equally bleak. Asked "Which of the following commercials do you remember seeing or hearing recently?" the recall rate for Bell's was just 32 per cent. Bailey's registered 60 per cent, Malibu 57 per cent and Martini 52 per cent.
Andy Smith, managing director of the marketing consultancy The Boroughclough in Edinburgh, says this is particularly bad news. "TV support for whisky was never going to be a panacea: beer brands like Tartan special have declined rapidly even as they advertised on the box.
"Still, TV could have allowed the whisky industry to unite behind a lifestyle and demonstrate to young people why they should be drinking Scotch. But it isn't doing that. All we're seeing is an extension of the dog-eat- dog market share fight with indistinguishable brands increasing and relocating their budgets."
The best evidence United Distillers can cite for the effectiveness of Bell's debut ads is that it pushed up its market share in northern pubs and clubs by 5 per cent in the run-up to Christmas, while Matthew Gloag's Famous Grouse - a brand that has not, as yet, used TV - lost 2 per cent share in the same sphere. The latter, however, sold 18 per cent more in supermarkets during this crucial sales period by slashing its price. Heavy discounting still seems the only sure way that Scotch producers can check falling sales.
No one denies that some commercials have made a serious bid to move the product back into a younger domain. Whyte & Mackay actually enlisted the stand-up comedian Phil Kay to parody the reverence and rituals that have traditionally shrouded Scotland's national drink. Kay gave endorsement to mixing whisky with Coke - or anything else.
But even this iconoclastic approach was careful not to alienate seasoned connoisseurs. The commercial played safe by emphasising the "double- matured blending process".
"The Whyte & Mackay ad is the only one that has come close to impressing me," says Gerry Farrell, creative director of the Leith Agency in Edinburgh, which has built Tennent's into Scotland's leading lager brand. "But it was scared to go the whole hog."
Farrell also suspects that many of Bell's rivals were bounced into shooting their commercials after they had carved up their marketing budgets. "A lot of the treatments had a small-budget, hurried feel," he says.
No one could fault the production values in Bell's own commercial, but many are critical of its content; a thirtysomething man announcing to his trendy, tartan-shirted chums his impending engagement interspersed with traditional shots of distilleries.
Andy Neal, United Distillers' consumer marketing director, believes in a combination of "the craft and the crack - as we start our conversation with young people, it is important not to alienate our existing older consumers." He pauses and adds: "Nor should we queer our pitch with regulators, who are watching what we do."
This approach does not seem to be cutting much ice with the key target market. A straw poll among real thirtysomethings at bar Booshka, one of several vodka bars that have sprung up in Glasgow, is revealing. The consensus is that the characters in the Bell's ad were "pretentious and anglicised" - both cardinal sins. "Vodka is far more versatile and milder tasting," says Kevin Lofthouse, a self-employed design engineer. "None of the whisky ads would persuade me to go back to the amber nectar."
Ian McAteer, client services director of Faulds Advertising, an Edinburgh agency that conducted extensive research into Scotch south of the border to secure the Black Bottle account, believes the whisky industry must throw creative caution - and Caledonian icons - to the wind, as it has done overseas.
"I think Spain highlights what can be achieved with whisky," says McAteer. "There it is seen as fun and sexy - the drink to be drunk in discos. The advertising reflects this. The Scottishness is not considered important."
Perhaps the whisky houses could learn something from Scotland's other national drink, Barr's Irn-Bru. After years of bidding to make a sales breakthrough in the south of England with the slogan "Made in Scotland from Girders", Barr's was persuaded by the Leith Agency to discard all references to Scotland and adopt a brasher poster and TV campaign for the fizzy drink.
But whoever the industry decides to take tips from, it had better take them fast. As one source says, something dramatic must be attempted soon before all those "Scotch on the rocks" headlines become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The writer is media editor of `Scotland on Sunday'.