VIEWPOINT: THE ANNALS OF ADVERTISING

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"Absolut Larceny" is the second part of a twin ad run on two consecutive right-hand pages. You don't need to have seen the companion ad in order to recognize the product. Nor do you need to be able to read English in order to understand what happened. All you need to see is the backlit halo, the two-word format and the broken chain. You fill in the missing product as well as the previous ad and the seemingly neverending campaign. For those who don't remember, the previous ad showed the Absolut bottle wrapped in chains over the blocked words, "Absolut Security." OK, this is not one of the better twosomes (remember "Absolut Magnetism," in which the bottle seems to be pulling words across the spine toward the bottle on the right-hand side, or "Absolut Pepper," in which the heat of the flavored vodka pictured on the left has burned the outline of the bottle on the next page?), but it'll do.

This campaign has been so successful that in less than 20 years almost everyone can decode this ad and imagine the missing one. Even more intriguing is that this recall (according to AdTrack, this campaign ranks at the top for all print ads) has been achieved primarily by using only one medium -- glossy magazines -- and in only one format -- two-word copy (really only one-word copy since the first word is always Absolut). The pull of "Absolut Magnetism" is curious, because the product itself is so bland. Vodka is aquavit, and aquavit is the most unsophisticated of alcohols. It is for novices and experts -- you either put something in it to give it taste, or you drink it down because you don't want it to taste. No taste, no smell. You don't savor aquavit; there are not vodka connoisseurs, no vodka sampling parties. In other words, the taste is not in the product. The taste is clearly in the packaging and the semiotics that surrounds it. Clearly, what we are drinking is the advertising, not the mashed wheat and potatoes.

Start with the bottle. No one reads the calligraphy below the brand name. (Read it sometime. It's ridiculous and it has nothing to do with ingredients but everything to do with the practiced ease of what Castiglione called sprezzatura.) But they do notice the name in blocked blue letters. "Absolut" comes from the original Absolut Renat, which means "absolutely pure," referring to the multiple distillation process called rectification that removes the usual impurities of the fermented potato. The bottle announces this purity not only in its form, but also from the fact that the entire label is literally inscribed in the glass. You have to see through it. Purity of package form, purity of filtration, purity of brand name, even purity of place of manufacture (is there any place more pure than snowy Sweden?), as well as all that polite schoolgirl handwriting.

Now put that under a halo and hang on tight. Things are getting religious. Although Absolut now gets the searchlight halo, the campaign started with a literal light circle (a late-Renaissance development of a halo on the cheap -- just white paint, no gold) hovering over the bottle's neck. All this iconizing the object, however, is not without danger. Remember the golden calf. Iconoclasm, or the destruction of mythic value, is always a threat. The ads are always just on the edge of self-parody anyway; it doesn't take much to push them over. Although Absolut parodies are all over the Web, the most on-target series has come from north of the border, from The Media Foundation, a Canadian anti-commercialism group. They ran a parodic series in their Adbusters magazine, which included such entries as a hangman's noose in the bottle's contour over the line "Absolute Hangover," and one of a coffin in the Absolut silhouette reading "Absolute Nonsense." Absolut lawyers threatened suit. Adbusters added the final "e" to the brand name and challenged the vodka company to a public debate on the pros and cons of alcohol advertising in a press release. Absolut lawyers in absolute retreat.

But if the Absolut campaign shows anything, it is that the ancient yearning for objects of value has continued unabated. Harness this yearning and you can load value into an interchangeable product. Certainly an increase of sales -- some 14,000 percent in 15 years -- counts for something. Certainly the fact that Absolut is the best-selling imported vodka says something, plus the fact that this bottle is now recognized almost as quickly as the Golden Arches.

But if you really want to see mute but eloquent testament to the Absolut icon, go to the liquor store and cruise the premium vodka aisle. There they are, the patient wannabes hoping for their breakthrough campaign: Finlandia's highly sculptural bottle looks just like Ittala crystal; Fris (complete with umlauts) resembles the Citicorp building; a brand called Icy is clearly knocking off Absolut's label-as-bottle format; Belvedere, Chopin, and Grey Goose all achieve 3-D effects with etched images on the inside back surfaces of the bottle, which shimmer through the front label; and Skyy is in a sky-blue bottle looking just like something you might have found on granny's bedside table. Compare the

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