Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee whisky advert branded a disgrace

Movie legend digitally recreated for Johnnie Walker commercial despite being teetotaler

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 July, 2013, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 04 September, 2013, 6:36pm

Bruce Lee has returned, nearly 40 years after his passing, to promote Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky in an advertisement that has divided fans.

The new ad for the China region features sophisticated computer graphics that re-create Lee’s likeness, painting a portrait of the late actor as he strolls atop a balcony in Hong Kong with the city skyline behind him. As he walks, Lee faces the camera and gives a short speech.

“Dragons never die, because dragons draw power from water," Lee says. "Water, it’s like instincts. Shapeless, formless, fluid. You cannot grasp hold of it. But let it flow and it has the power to change the world. I believe in instincts...

"Do you have the guts to follow your gut? Do you have the courage who express who you are? Be water, my friend. Because someday you’ll be more than a success. You’ll be a game changer.”

The advertisement ends with a close-up shot of Johnnie Walker Blue Label whisky.

But not everyone has been impressed with the ad. Many fans took to internet forums to vent their anger that the actor himself was teetotal. 

According to Campaign Asia-Pacific marketing magazine, the project features Lee’s likeness because Johnnie Walker was looking for a "game changer" to be the face of Blue Label, which "blends both new and old whisky". 

Filmed at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Causeway Bay, the advertisement stars Hong Kong actor and Bruce Lee lookalike Danny Chan Kwok-kwan. A digital re-creation of Lee’s facial expressions was pasted over footage of Chan’s face, and the narration was written to represent a combination of various quotes and philosophies that Lee had expressed while he was alive. Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, acted as a consultant for the project.

The ad premiered in China on Sunday, coinciding with other Bruce Lee commemorations for the 40th anniversary of his death. There are also plans to promote the spot in other countries, the magazine reported. In the original ad, Lee is heard speaking Putonghua. A Cantonese version also exists, but it is dubbed - an odd choice considering Lee was a Cantonese speaker.

“We worked…to create a [computer graphic] Bruce Lee over nine months,” Joseph Kahn, director of the ad, said in a statement. “Every shot of his head and every detail in there is completely CGI. We got Shannon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, to come aboard and we really picked her brain to make sure that everything was accurate from look to soul. We wanted to be as respectful to the man and the legend as we could.”

Bruce Lee is widely regarded as one of the world’s most famous Hongkongers and passed away in Kowloon Tong on July 20, 1973, at the age of 32. Internationally known for his films and jeet kun do hybrid fighting style, Lee was also a philosopher who advocated that in both martial arts and life one should be “formless [and] shapeless like water”, a mantra that Johnnie Walker has adapted for its advertisement.

According to the 1975 book Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew by Lee’s widow, Linda Lee Cadwell, the actor abstained from alcohol.

The ad has begun to make waves on China’s Sina Weibo microblogs, where it has garnered a mostly positive reception from netizens, many of whom are calling it a moving tribute to a “Chinese icon”.

“These computer graphics are ushering in the rebirth of a legend!” one user wrote.

Several of Lee’s Hong Kong and Western fans have not been as receptive, and have described the ad as “in bad taste” and “not a tribute, only a commercial”. 

“The animation is, without a doubt, eerily real-life [and looks like] Bruce Lee,” said Edwin Lee, a Hong Kong filmmaker. “But to attribute all that talent so you can sell alcohol? I find it disgraceful. The man even abstained from alcohol...The fact that he is ‘revived’ in such vivid manner to promote a product [and] lifestyle he never conformed to nor has a choice in this matter is, I feel, immoral and shows you the lowest depravity of mass marketing these days. [And this is] all to break into the Chinese market, hence why we find the Hong Kong cultural icon speaking Mandarin.”


The original published version of this article stated that the book 'Bruce Lee: The Man Only I Knew' was published in 1978, and had references to Lee abstaining from alcohol "after a bout of drinking that temporarily estranged him from his family." Certain readers have pointed out that the book was published in 1975 and does not contain explicit family-specific reasons for Lee's abstinence from alcohol. The article has been edited to reflect these corrections.