So far, the first-ever commercials for Absolut vodka have been seen only in cinemas in Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia. Tailoring the creative work to the medium, the two commercials are tongue-in-cheek trailers for improbable Hollywood movies called "Hey Stranger" and "beatcrazy." The radical departure from two decades of print campaigns that have transformed Absolut into an advertising icon was not a simple decision.
"To deviate from that is scary," said Ann Stokes, Stockholm-based communications manager, Latin America, for the Absolut Co., a division of Absolut's Swedish-based parent Vin & Sprit. (Absolut is seeking another distributor to replace Seagram Spirits & Wine Group in the U.S. and other major markets.) "Who wants to be known as the person who ruined the Absolut campaign?"
MESSAGE BEING MISSED
But Absolut's global agency, TBWA Worldwide, persuaded the vodka maker that its message was being missed in countries like Mexico where people don't read much, or in countries where they don't read the upscale titles that Absolut is comfortable buying. Mexican women, for example, like to read the novela rosa, the romantic novel published in Cosmopolitan-like monthly Vanidades, while Mexican men buy Muy Interesante, similar to the The National Enquirer, TBWA's research found.
Mexicans do go to the movies 2.5 times a week, however, as dumpy movie houses have been replaced by plush cinema complexes that attract young, upscale Mexicans seeking entertainment.
The spoof trailer for "Hey Stranger" opens with a mysterious man arriving in town, toting an oddly shaped case. A voice-over intones: "Everyone wants to know what's in the case." In 60 action-packed seconds, the stranger meets a girl named Jennifer, has sex, and blows up a building in a series of quick cuts that also involve horses, dynamite and guns. At the end, he opens the case to reveal a bottle of Absolut.
Created by TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, and filmed in a California desert with an Argentine soap opera star in the lead role, "Hey Stranger" opened in cinemas in major Mexican cities in October 1998 and in Colombia and Venezuela last year. A second spoof trailer has been running since last year.
"Beatcrazy," about disc jockeys on the Spanish island Ibiza, was shot by Tarsem, the U.K. director whose first feature film is "The Cell," starring Jennifer Lopez.
The cinema ads resulted in Absolut's market share in Mexico growing from 23% to 28% in less than a year. Its share then jumped to 30% in 1999, according to ACNielsen Corp. figures. In both Colombia and Venezuela, Absolut's sales are going up even as premium spirits sales fall.
"The idea is to expand it to a pan-global campaign wherever cinema makes sense," said Kim Wijkstrom, New York-based Americas account director for Absolut at TBWA.
The effort has been so successful that Absolut is entertaining the idea of TV ads. "Of course we're looking at it, but we don't have a definite yes or no," Ms. Stokes said. "But we're in cinema to stay."
SOME TV ALREADY
Absolut has already made a brief foray into TV with brief 15-second commercials aired only in Puerto Rico and Greece, but those spots were minor local efforts based on print ads. "We regard the cinema campaign as the first time we really have done commercials," she said.
Dialogue from the first two trailers has quickly generated local catchphrases and even pickup lines. In the time-compressed "Hey Stranger," Jennifer's innocent question "And then what?" is followed by her sex scene with the stranger, turning the question into a popular innuendo-laden pickup line. Moviegoers also quote DJ Shep's line in "beatcrazy" about the return of the 1980s: "Retro is on the comeback!"
Both spots are packed with Absolut icons. Ms. Stokes said each has about 20, from the bottle-shaped necklace the stranger wears to a ceiling fan whose paddles are half a dozen Absolut bottles.
Ms. Stokes, a bubbly Swede who has been in charge of Latin American advertising for more than two years, said that many of Absolut's most innovative marketing and advertising ideas are now coming from Latin America. Consider Absolut summer, a field of flowers planted in Chile in the shape of an Absolut bottle. The flower seeds are going to be sprouting in Peru next, she said.
And Absolut's first ads on the Internet were a four-month trial ending last month in Latin America and the U.S. Hispanic market with StarMedia Networks, a regional portal. The idea came from Puerto Rico, Ms. Stokes said. Absolut selected special pages covering areas like travel, music and postcards and dropped an animated image on the screen of a lemon. The lemon splits open and a bottle comes out. Ms. Stokes said the effort is still being evaluated, but the average clickthrough rate was higher than 15%.
Another Latin American initiative that may run elsewhere is "Cybersign." Revolving Absolut ads were placed inside an Absolut bottle to support duty-free sales at the airport in Santiago. The effort is now rolling out to more international airports.