May 9 2016 04:44 PM

A gin-infused blimp ride exposes the insanity of brand promotion

Photos by Ron Donoho

"You had me at blimp."

These may not be the exact words I say when my editor Ron Donoho asks if I want to join him on Hendrick's Gin cucumber-shaped blimp, but I'm certain only people who deliberate over free blimp rides are damn fools.

El Cajon's Gillespie Field is the first stop in Hendrick's Gin's promotional tour across the country. Loyal gin-drinkers, distributors and the, yes, media are among the people invited to ride on a massive, green blimp. After accepting the invitation, I walk away with a newfound lightness to my step, already referring to it as a "pickle-blimp" in my mind, and further, recognizing that the timeline of my life will be divided into "pre-pickle-blimp" and "post-pickle-blimp."

I wake up early on the day of our scheduled ride. It's a bluebird morning—maybe the first time I've ever considered a time of day in such anthropomorphic terms. I drive over the hill and into El Cajon. A dreamy, sun-reflecting layer of haze has settled into the East County valley. I squint against the divine brightness. And then I see it, floating above the shimmering, gold world: pickle blimp. Long, green, phallic. So majestic.

I wait in the airport parking lot and watch the pickle blimp land in the adjacent field. Ron shows up and calls Victoria, our PR hook-up. We can see her from where we're standing, but she still sends a Hendrick's van to escort us the 100 or so yards to where she is.

When we get to the launch site, I'm even more awed by the pickle blimp. It looms over everything, and the eyeball graphic printed on the side of the balloon only adds to the god-like omnipotence.

I blindly sign the release waiver. Whatever bodily injury/death incurred by pickle blimp: worth it. But walking forward to meet my potential maker, logic begins to break through the euphoria. Why a blimp? I think. How does that have anything to do with gin?

These are the types of questions that underwrite this column. As much as I want to give my readers a good laugh, I always want to remind them that we live in an insane world, despite daily routines that do a pretty good job of numbing us to it. I'm convinced that the only reason life isn't devastatingly frightening is because we have to live it every day.

And this is why I will always accept an invitation from a public relations company. There is no other agency that typifies the disconnection between how the world is presented to us and how weird it actually is. I don't mean this as an insult (some of my best friends work in PR!), but I'm endlessly fascinated by how hysteria is peddled, or how any writer can document this kind of stuff without freaking the fuck out. Like, I have no clue how giving a lot of well-off people gin and putting them in a blimp can be understood and applied to the Universal Human Condition.

An example of this strangeness is the makeshift bar that Hendrick's has set up on the airfield, mere feet from the giant floating device that could crush us if a strong gust of wind suddenly blew it over. People in old-timey outfits (of course they're old timey) sling gin and cucumber cocktails to a small, impassive crowd on an airfield before 9 a.m. Is it cool? Yes, but is it also hella Lynchian? Yes.

The blimp's gondola is small—apart from the pilot, there's really only room for me and Ron. The entire aircraft is tethered by seven people holding ropes, and it shifts as we board. The control anyone has over this beast seems sketchy at best. I take a sip from my Hendrick's gift flask to calm the nerves.

The blimp's takeoff reminds me of to watching seven grown men launch a giant kite off the ground, but all my nervousness disappears we ascend into the heavens. Cesar, our pilot, controls the blimp from a throne that looks similar to a wheelchair with two foot-pedals.

I poke my head out the window. I'm surprised by the amount of pools in El Cajon. I find myself judging the shape of pools at this height. If you have a regular rectangle pool and we fly over it, you better believe I'm gonna judge you.

We float above San Diego State University. I ask Cesar if we can swoop down and strike fear in the hearts of college students (I'm mostly done with my flask by this point). He gives me a pity laugh and doesn't answer.

Landing a blimp turns out to be another exercise of crossing fingers and hoping things turn out well. The seven people who launched us wait on the field like bowling pins. Cesar lowers us and we bounce along the ground at 30 mph toward them. The men run at us, grab at ropes and basically drag their feet. One man tumbles to the ground. It looks painful. I swig the last of my promotional gin.

We exit the blimp. The next couple getting ready to fly—an attractive pair from Locale magazine—looks sufficiently buzzed from the Lynchian bar. They're throwing dramatic poses and snapping pics in front of the pickle blimp. Ron and I hang around to watch it lift into the sky without us. It's vaguely sad to imagine that I'll be now living in a post-pickle-blimp era, and those feelings—booze-fueled sadness mixed with a yearning for what I can't have—is how I know that the promotion worked.

Ryan is the author of Horror Business. Write to or follow him on Twitter at @theryanbradford


See all events on Friday, Dec 9