Absolut inspiration? Hardly, save flash of comic brilliance

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Marketer: Absolut vodka
Agency: TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York
Ad review rating: Two stars
Jerry Lewis rating: Four stars

One of the 20 Annie Leibovitz portraits commissioned by Seagram to commemorate the anniversary of Absolut vodka's legendary print campaign features film director Gus Van Sant holding a previous Absolut ad ("Absolut Illusion") between opposing mirrors.

The effect is infinity--or at six degrees of infinity; the angle is too oblique for more.

Not because the photograph is very interesting. It isn't. And not that the ad is so remarkable. It's fuzzy, and busy, and how in the world are we to recognize Gus Van Sant?

No, what makes the truncated infinity image so fitting is that the concept is frustrating and elusive--just like this campaign. Consider the opposing-mirror imponderability of it all. One of the greatest print advertising campaigns ever for one of the most vividly branded products ever is being honored by one of the greatest portrait photographers ever in advertising that is surprisingly ordinary, with portraits that are themselves mainly ordinary, most of them obscuring the extraordinary logo, in some cases beyond recognition--except that one of the 20 ads may be the greatest piece of advertising portraiture ever shot.

See what we're saying? It's hard to draw a bead on this one. It's a great ad surrounded by bad ads wrapped in an enigma.

You wonder, of course, which one. Is it Susan Sontag, the writer and social critic? Nope, it's not Susan Sontag. Sorry, it's not Philippe Starck, either--because although Leibovitz invokes her standard shtick of placing him simultaneously, and ironically, in and out of context, the circle shower of his expensive design, in which he stands in the middle of a London industrial site, makes for a boring picture. (Oh, yeah. . . he designs furniture and fixtures. Get it?)

No, it's also not Mark Morris (the choreographer, duh! Aren't you hip enough to recognize him?). Maybe you draw a blank on artist Julian Schnabel, too. Fashion designer Tom Ford? You must recognize composer Philip Glass; isn't he just all over E! Entertainment Television?

Well, never mind. It's entirely possible you're not so caught up on The New York Review of Books, and The New York Observer, and the SoHo gallery scene and the Four Seasons seating chart to recognize these extremely accomplished and sophisticated artists. It wouldn't be the first pretentious campaign that's way too hip for the room.

Anyway, TBWA/Chiat/Day, New York, doesn't necessarily care if you recognize these geniuses, as long as you understand that they are better than you, and therefore know their vodka.

Anyway, the best portrait is not Salman Rushdie, either, although, what with the eyebrows and everything, the photo of him burning his favorite Absolut ad is damn near satanic (vs. a less Fatwah-begging bit of imagery).

Look, let's end the suspense. The single absolutely brilliant image in this otherwise absolutely dull and self-congratulatory campaign is Jerry Lewis.

He sits there, in sepia tones, looking off camera. It is an almost somber portrait, with the lighting values and formal pose of a Karsch rendering of Kennedy or Churchill. Lewis, the director-philanthropist-megalomaniac-clown, has a seriousness in his eyes verging on a sadness. His left eye droops a bit, his right focuses in a slightly different direction.

It's as if this is his last pose, and he knows it. In him we see not the Nutty Professor but just a bit of Abraham Lincoln. The photo is simply as expressive and poignant and dignified as one can be.

Oh, and he has a vodka glass crammed into his mouth.

That's the thing. It's like Abe Lincoln with a vodka glass in his mouth, a triumph of wit, meaning and tone. We are drawn to it. We recognize and understand. In this portrait and only this portrait, we credit the advertiser that presents it.

Alone among these 20 images, it reaffirms both the character of the subject and the character of the brand, and reveals them, at least in this exercise, as one. It is, in other words, infinitely superior: an Absolut masterpiece.

Copyright September 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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