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Michel Roux, the man who built Absolut into the No. 1 imported vodka in the U.S., today kicks off a major push to build the mystique of its rival, Stolichnaya.

Dramatic magazine ads produced by young Russian artists carry the not-so-subtle tag, "Freedom of choice."

Is that a message tweaking Absolut and its Swedish parent, which abruptly pulled the brand from Mr. Roux's Carillon Importers last year?

Mr. Roux was diplomatic; he said he doesn't necessarily think Absolut has to lose volume in the face of the $12 million Stoli blitz.

"My target is to enlarge the pie of imported vodka," the Carillon president said. But the native Frenchman added: "If it happens that I increase our market share at the expense of Absolut ..."

The new Stoli ads feature work from artists trying to capture the "Freedom" theme in graphics reminiscent of 1930s and '40s style Russian art. The ads from Margeotes Fertitta Donaher & Weiss, New York, break in Penthouse and Conde Nast Traveler.

Carillon will run one of 15 ads in 70 different magazines in September and October, promising to triple Stoli's recent annual spending in the coming year. In 1995, the campaign will be backed with a full slate of events aimed at attracting the same kind of young, trendy crowds who were attracted to Absolut.

The ads come eight months after Swedish distiller Vin & Sprit shocked the industry by announcing Absolut's move from Carillon and Carillon owner Grand Metropolitan to Seagram Co.

Vin & Sprit said it wanted worldwide distribution and felt Grand Met's ownership of Smirnoff vodka would hamper promotion of Absolut in other parts of the world. The transfer took effect in February, and Grand Met quickly signed to take over U.S. rights for marketing Stoli from PepsiCo.

Mr. Roux said a good part of the Stoli-Absolut fight will take place in the retail and distribution trenches; he said he has a reserve of good will he hopes to use there.

"It is my sense and [that of] my colleagues who are going out and checking every night that people are saying, `We are moving to your side. We think what happened to you wasn't right,"' Mr. Roux said.

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