Photography: Skyy Vodka

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Everyone is familiar with the current print-ubiquitous Skyy vodka campaign, created in 1998, which is probably the most purely photography-driven booze work out there. Unlike the headline-reliant, interminable Absolut series, Skyy is virtually copy-free. Just a tiny ad title, web address and "Quadruple distilled and triple filtered for ultimate smoothness," on the almost unnoticeable level of fine print, saves each ad from being total image. When it comes to words, "we don't make a big deal out of it," says Chad Farmer, ECD at Lambesis in Del Mar, Calif., a veritable booze specialty shop that handles, among many other brands, Cutty Sark (see Creativity, February 2002). "We try to minimize the typography for the ads' value as poster collectibles. I'm sure it could be bigger and be seen more readily, but that's not our style."

At the same time, however, the ads are intended in large part to drive eyeballs to the website, Skyy.com, which may be a fairly well-kept secret. The site is a short-film fest akin to BMWFilms.com, which Farmer notes has stolen much of Skyy's product-placed cinematic thunder - though Skyy had the idea first. (Right now, Skyy's short films include Falling in Love in Pongo Ponga, written and directed by James Woods, and Farmer says they're looking to attract more big names.)

The Skyy ads, it turns out, are intended to be imaginary movie stills, much like some of the work of fine-art photographers like Cindy Sherman. This may be news to many, even in the target market. Is the site considered a hit? Farmer won't use that word, but according to his stats, Skyy.com gets approximately 350,000 hits per month (a fraction of BMWFilms.com but surely nothing to sneeze at). The product itself boasts numbers that can't be argued with. It's enjoyed double-digit sales increases each year since the campaign started, and in 2000 Skyy exceeded the one million-case mark for the first time, earning the Impact Databank Hot Brand Award.

"It's all based on the cinematic platform that we built for Skyy," explains Farmer - a platform that can be traced back to the man behind Skyy Spirits, inventor Maurice Kanbar, who is also the man behind the multiplex movie concept, as well as the vodka distilling/filtering process that allegedly mitigates Skyy hangovers. Though this potential USP was played up years ago in copy-heavy work at previous agency Hal Riney, Farmer says it would be hampered today by legal restrictions, and beyond that, all unflavored vodkas are more or less identical. So he prefers to focus on the brand's "retro cocktail culture image," as he calls it. And in the realm of perception, it can be argued that Skyy rules the photographic booze roost, first with Moshe Brakha, then, in 2000, with a switch to Matthew Rolston. "We're interested in owning the idea of contemporary cocktail culture and defining what that looks like and feels like," Farmer explains. "Relative to cinema, we always play off cues of the Technicolor era, from, say, the late '50s to the early '70s. But we work in an area where they're kind of timeless. It could be now, it could be 30 years ago."

Farmer prefers not to comment on the change from Brakha to Rolston beyond saying it was for "creative reasons," but this may not be detectable in the ads. "They light differently and direct talent differently, but the final result is pretty subtle in terms of differences. It's the same agency, the same art direction, so you can't really tell the ads apart. We want to keep that consistency."

As for the absence of copy, "We feel that if you can clearly define all your brand attributes visually, it's going to be more memorable," Farmer insists. All the work is heavily tested, and this approach has been supported in case studies on several brands; "consumers will play back to us exactly what we're looking for in the way of communications objectives," he says. "It's funny, because ad people don't always get it - our work is discounted all the time; if it's entered in an awards show, it's like, 'Where's the headline?' People need to wake up to the fact that there's a more powerful way and a more global way to communicate than the traditional headline/copy ad."

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