The premise of the game is simple: hand a friend a sugary Smirnoff Ice malt beverage and he (most participants have been men) has to drink it on one knee, all at once — unless he is carrying a bottle himself, in which case the attacker must drink both bottles of what Mr. Rospos described as a “pretty terrible” drink.
Amid suspicion that the trend is an elaborate viral marketing campaign by Smirnoff, which the company has denied, new icing photos are posted daily on various blogs, Twitter and Facebook — including scenes from graduations and weddings — and sent directly to a Web site, BrosIcingBros.com. The speed with which Mr. Rospos and a group of his friends from high school adopted the game mirrors the rapid spread of Bros Icing Bros from the Web to backyards, living rooms and cubicles around the country, exploding from obscurity in May into a bizarre pastime of college students, young professionals and minor celebrities that counts among its targets the rapper Coolio, the actor Dustin Diamond and members of the rock band The National. A campaign online aims to ice Ashton Kutcher, who often serves as a kind of Kevin Bacon of Web memes, linking disparate areas of the Internet in fewer than six degrees.
The game has exposed the mercurial line between guerrilla advertising and genuine social media trends, raising questions about how young consumers can know when they have co-opted a brand for their own purposes, and when that brand has co-opted them.
“Guys who would never buy Smirnoff before are even buying it now to shield against attacks,” said Kevin Wolkenfeld, a junior at the University of Central Florida in Orlando who documented the phenomenon for the school paper. (According to the rules, the only way to block an attack — besides simply refusing to participate — is by carrying a bottle.) Most players — a widening swath of the campus, he said — would probably stop “if it turns out they’re being used to market a drink they really don’t like.”
The rapid spread of what is, essentially, a binge drinking game puts Smirnoff and its parent company, Diageo , which is based in London, in an awkward position, marketing specialists said. “Beyond the implicit slur on the beverage’s taste, I doubt any alcoholic beverage company would want to be associated with a drinking game that stretches the boundaries of good taste and common sense like this one does,” said Dick Martin, a former executive vice president of AT&T and the author of several books on branding. “It’s too obviously a self-destruct button on all their ‘drink responsibly’ advertising.”
A company spokesman denied any involvement, but would not comment on whether any action would be taken. In 2006, one of the company’s campaigns, a preppy rap video for Smirnoff Raw Tea created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, went viral, attracting more than five million hits.
“Icing is consumer-generated, and some people think it is fun,” a company statement read. “We never want under-age ‘icing’ and we always want responsible drinking.”
Such hijacking of a brand is not uncommon, and in this case, it has produced a short-term benefit for Smirnoff, raising awareness of the brand and extending it to young male consumers who formerly shunned the drink as one aimed at women. Sales of Ice products have taken off in some southern college towns, including Sewanee, Tenn., and Charleston, S.C., where “icing” took early root.
“It started last week. People buying Smirnoff Ice like crazy,” said El Sayed Hayed, who has owned the King Street Grocery in downtown Charleston for six years. “This is the first year this happens.”
While its exact origins are murky — some say Vermont, others Saint Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y. — the game gained early traction among fraternity brothers in the South. Members of Pi Kappa Alpha at the College of Charleston said they were the first to put the rules online, posting to BroBible.com in early April. “I didn’t expect it to be crazy like this,” said one fraternity brother, a business administration major who asked to remain anonymous because he did not want his name connected with the game. He said that his blog post was then taken without his knowledge or permission and republished as the core of BrosIcingBros.com. That site went online a week later, in early April, according to Whois.net, a kind of White Pages for Internet domains. From there, the game spread quickly, especially in New York, where a wide cross section of young men and women, as varied as Wall Street bankers and rock musicians, has taken part, including indie bands like Frightened Rabbit and Deer Tick, said Jay Belin, a talent booker for the Mercury Lounge who created You Got Iced, a blog, in May to document icings. “It sounded like a perfect way for my friends and me to burn each other all summer long,” he said, adding that Mr. Diamond, who played Screech on the television show “Saved By the Bell,” was recently iced.
“I think Bros Icing Bros is a nearly perfect meme,” said Josh Heller, 26, who tracks Internet trends for Current TV and made a short video about his efforts to bring icing to Los Angeles. “You’re taking a game and playing it in real life.”
But Mr. Rospos, the aerospace engineer from New Jersey, doubted it would continue for long. “Part of it is that it’s Smirnoff Ice,” he said. “If you did it with beer, you’d want to get iced.” He said he could see his friends surprising each other next year, but added that he thought that their current exuberance would not last through the summer.
Nevertheless, he was enjoying himself over the Memorial Day weekend, hiding bottles around his parents’ backyard, including in the pool skimmer. Lukewarm traps, he said, for his unwitting friends.