Absolut Faux Pas

When vodka ads offend nativists


Did you hear the one about the Swedish vodka company recently purchased by a French conglomerate marketing to Mexican consumers that pissed off U.S. bloggers? Ah, the perils of globalism! In early March, Absolut ran an ad in Mexican magazines as part of its "In an Absolut World" campaign. The ad featured a map of North America from the 1830s, when Mexico still controlled great portions of land it eventually coughed up one way or another to the United States. If the real world were as perfect as it sometimes seems when you're smashed on vodka, Absolut suggested coyly, the Dallas Cowboys would be Mexico's team, not America's, and the Beach Boys would've had to settle for Nebraska girls.

Apparently, Absolut's ad agency put too much faith in news stories that we gringos are so geographically illiterate we think maps are just promotional posters for globes. But as any border patrol vigilante worth his margarita salt can tell you, what happens in Mexico City doesn't always stay in Mexico City. The controversial Absolut ads crossed the Rio Grande via the Internet, and U.S. bloggers with anti-immigration leanings, already sensitive to the idea of being undermined by an army of dishwashers and day laborers, demanded a boycottini.

But do these angry patriots really believe drunken Mexicans fantasize about owning Salt Lake City? Do they really believe Absolut wants to decrease the size of its most lucrative market, America? It's just an ad, part of a campaign that portrays a glibly "idealized" alternate universe. In another ad in the campaign, men get pregnant instead of women. In a third, the Almighty Bartender reaches down from the heavens to dump ice cubes into an ocean that is presumably hot with the sweat of boiling dolphins. As much as Absolut may position itself as a light-hearted advocate for gender equality and the War on Climate Change, it's mostly a light-hearted advocate for selling as much vodka as possibleand it's not above sucking up to its many different constituencies to do so.

Indeed, over the last three decades Absolut has done a brilliant job of this. In 1980, vodka had a reputation as a cheap commodity that was so generic even Communists couldn't screw it up too badly. Then the Swedes began exporting Absolut in those chic medicinal bottles. And running ads in virtually every magazine big enough to earn a spot on your local newsrack. (Possibly the one thing Martha Stewart Living, The New Republic, Garden Design, Scientific American, and Hustler have in common is that they've all run Absolut ads.)

The spare but glamorous layouts of those initial Absolut ads transformed vodka's status from cheap commodity to yuppie status item: They were like a pair of designer jeans that got you drunk! Over the next 25 years, Absolut employed a strategy of versatile monotony, producing more than 1,500 ads that followed the same simple template as the first onea depiction of the bottle plus a short phrase beginning with the word "Absolut."

As the campaign progressed, it grew more and more abstract, and thus more and more effective. The boastful language of the earliest ads ("Absolut Perfection," "Absolut Gem") gave way to puns that said nothing about the product itself. A bottle wrapped in chains was paired with the phrase "Absolut Security." A bottle turned on its head was paired with the phrase "Absolut Yoga." The company was no longer selling itself as a maker of vodka; it was selling itself as a maker of witty but empty advertising. In the same way that vodka is so tasteless, odorless, and colorless it can be mixed with just about anything, the Absolut brand was so meaningless it could be mixed with just about anything too.

Thanks to this chameleon-like ability to appeal to so many different kinds of consumers, Absolut is the most popular imported vodka in America. It's the third largest liquor brand worldwide. Two years ago, however, it decided to finally retire its traditional ads. Last year, it unveiled its first "In an Absolut World" ads; unlike their empty, eye-catching predecessors, these ones convey actual messages, often with a progressive slant. And that, Absolut has learned in the wake of its fantasy annexation of a sizable chunk of the American West and Southwest, is a recipe for trouble.

Still, is a single controversial ad grounds for boycotts and disownment? Last year, America drank approximately 1.68 billion shots of Absolut. Think of all the drunken hook-ups that represents! Think of all the business deals Absolut helped seal, the concerts and football games and slow Thursday afternoons it enhanced. Plus there's the question of whose "perfect world" Absolut's border realignment really represents. Ultimately, more Mexico would just mean less America; the net result would be fewer illegal immigrants invading the U.S. in search of a better life. That doesn't sound like a Mexican fantasy at all. Instead, it's a scenario nativists would toast.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer in San Francisco.