Roll NO. 14
Student of: Post Graduate Programme in
Communications Management for Executives (PGPCMX)
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The Absolut Vodka advertising campaign has been running non-stop since 1981. It’s been over 20 years, which in advertising, is
practically forever. Industry insiders hail it as one of the most successful campaigns in the history of advertising.
It is rarely that one comes across ads which cut on the copy to focus on the visual appeal. Absolut Vodka is one such campaign. The
star of the ads is always the beautiful, artful, chameleon-like bottle from Sweden. It’s brilliant because it focuses on the visual to
convey the message.
The Absolut ads are celebrated as much for their ingenuity as their longevity. They are full of wit, artistry, and imagination as they
deftly communicate the brand’s values, often containing little challenges to the reader to interpret just what’s happening inside the ad.
The advertising campaign has won many awards, including charter membership in the American Marketing Association’s Marketing
Hall of Fame. It was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1992 along with just two other brands: Coca Cola and Nike. The advertising
campaign was conceived by TBWA Advertising.
In the ensuing report, I am going to analyze the print ads for this brand and the role it played in shaping the destiny of ABSOLUT. I
will attempt to uncover the intriguing usage of symbols and signs used to convey the message of the brand. There are a variety of
themes that the agency worked on e.g. Product, Objects, Cities, Art, Holidays etc.
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While taking a look at the communication messages and making meaning of it, it was necessary to delve into the past of the brand
(before the whole ad campaign was planned). The reason we’re doing this is to trace how the layers kept adding up to the brand
• Absolut Vodka is a Swedish brand of vodka, produced near Åhus, Scania, in southern Sweden
• Although, it was an unrefined product, it nonetheless contained some of the world’s finest raw ingredients: pure Swedish water
and rich Swedish wheat
• Lars Olsson Smith called the product Absolut rent branvin, Swedish for “Absolut pure vodka”
• Earlier in 1970, the Swedish government had taken control of the production and distribution of the beverage alcohol industry,
• By the late 1970’s, it was clear that if the distillery was to survive, Abosult would have to become an export product
• The brand owners in Stockholm, Vin & Spirit, knew what market they had to tap- America
• In the 1970s America accounted for 60% of the vodka consumed in the free world
• However,99% of the vodka consumed in America was produced in America and most of it was very inexpensive
• Conventional wisdom held that “all vodkas are alike,” due to the relative ease of production, the few ingredients necessary, and
the fact that no aging is required, as with Scotch and other whiskeys
• Also, because most consumers combined their vodka with orange juice, tomato juice, tonic or any number of other mixers they
didn’t much care about the underlying quality of the vodka: the cheaper the better
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• The remaining 1% imported vodka market in America was dominated by Stolichnaya, the Russian vodka
• Stolichnaya was imported since 1968 by a subsidiary of the Pepsi-Cola company as payment, in lieu of hard currency for the
Pepsi sold in the Soviet Union
• Created specifically for export, it was good vodka, some of Russia’s finest, and the only Russian vodka “officially” exported to
• Being Russian, Stoli possessed a seamless authenticity for many Americans: from the czars to the revolution to the summit
meetings, vodka and Russia have long been synonymous in consumers’ minds
• Most of the vodkas made in America even have Russian sounding names: Smirnoff, Romanoff ,Georgi
• By 1978, Vin & Sprit was ready to test the waters. It sent a delegation to the United States
• The next move was to find a distributor in the US. They met reception colder than a chilled cocktail glass. quot;Who has ever
heard of a Swedish vodka?! And it doesn't have a label; it'll disappear on the shelf. It will never sell!!quot;
• One company that didn't lack foresight was Carillion Importers Ltd. based on Manhattan.
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Absolut would be product that didn’t take itself too seriously. It would be a
Did you k now?
product that could laugh at itself.
The photoshoot of ABSOLUT bottle was a tough
cookie to crack. The photographer said “The
The customer profile of ABSOLUT- Probably out of college, starting a career,
bottle is like a big lens; anything put behind it is
or on their first or second job, they were experiencing the nightlife, the arts,
distorted and reversed.” Rather than shoot the
the museums that the Big City offered. The agency, TBWA, the agency, was
bottle in front of a black background, he chose to
also a very early supporter of media directed toward the gay and lesbian
place a sheet of matte Plexiglas behind it, and
communities. The agency introduced this segment to the Absolut officials in
illuminate it with a soft glow.
the early eighties as a segment predisposed to purchasing premium products.
Absolut was one of the first consumer brands to openly embrace the gay
community and view its members as important and desirable consumers of its product. Its ads have appeared in gay media since 1981,
and the company has long sponsored major gay events, including the 2000 fall line of Tom of Finland clothing.
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Analysis of the Ads:
Theme Product Ad: These are called Product Ads because they still feature Absolut Vodka inside the actual glass bottle.
Discourse: The subculture of the gay & punk communities in America in the late 1960’s
I. The piercing on the bottle is the signifier. The accessory shown here is symbolic of
modern subculture that was gaining momentum-particularly the gay subculture.
This ad was also released during the time
II. The piercing is also symbolic of a non-conformist fashion statement. Further it is
symbolic of using human body as a canvas to express the freedom from the societal
norms or code of conduct
Signified: Openly talking about experimenting with your body is the signification that comes through visually in the ad. This is
highlighted with the effect of light in the background. It works as a limelight. In this case the bottle is no longer just a bottle, but a
metaphor of the human body. The recognition of people who subscribe to the concept of being experimentative with their body is the
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subtext. The upright body language of the bottle perhaps has a direct association to the human posture & brings out the assertiveness
of the person to stand up and make a statement to the world.
The ad gives them this space to voice their openness. This space then becomes their platform of self-expression. Almost as if to say,
this is me & I am comfortable with myself and the way I want to experiment with my body.
The endeavor of the marketer is to no longer keep it restricted to drinking vodka but to make the bottle an icon that is relevant to them.
This icon is then expected to be embraced by them.
The colour coding of a black background dramatises the way they have emerged. Gay as a phenomenon isn’t new to the world & has
been in existence since ancient times. The black background shows how these people may have actually come out from the darkness
or the shadows which they were hiding behind to an open platform into the limelight. They can now assert their sexual preferences.
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Discourse: The tension in the relationship between USA & Soviet
I. The magnifying glass as the object used to emphasize the
name and the country from where Absolut Vodka comes
The time period in which this ad was published was around the time
when the Soviet Union was particularly unpopular in the United States
due to its invasion of Afghanistan and later, the downing of a Korean
jetliner, this ad subtly emphasized the fact that Absolut was made in
Sweden, not in Russia. It was common knowledge that Vodka was
synonymous with Russia. Despite speaking of it’s origin from Sweden
on the product itself. Most people who consumed the drink did not
decode the message directly. It’s the same phenomenon of how people
due to sub-conscious conditioning at times fill in the gaps as they have embedded in their minds. I draw logic from the research done
wherein people look at the first and the last word & are able to understand the word, irrespective of the spelling in between being right
or wrong. In the same manner vodka comes from Russia was the popular belief and one would tend to take that for granted. If at all
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they were to read that this particular vodka is from Sweden, it wouldn’t ever occur to them as being of that great importance, simply
because in their mind the connection has already been established.
The advertiser was aware of this psychology of the consumer & hence they consciously downplayed the Sweden connection for the
brand. This strategy was employed until the time was perfect to highlight the truth and the origin became the primary message to be
communicated. Thus during this period of tension the Key Message delivered was on its Swedish origin.
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Theme Absolut Object : This category of ads showed the Absolut bottle not made from glass but from something else. Because the
size and shape of the object resembles that of the bottle, the object represents an Absolut bottle. This was an easy thing to do
considering the customer had consumed several years’ worth of glass bottles as a lengthy appetizer, the Absolut bottle image was
firmly established in their minds, before the advertiser took the image away.
Discourse: Celebration of Christmas
• The iconic symbols associated with celebrating Christmas like the gifts,
Christmas tree, hearth etc. The hearth is a very significant symbol as in early
days fire was a symbol of the home, safety and warmth. The English took on
the custom of burning the Yule log on Christmas Eve. It was considered good
luck to sit on it before it was burned and it was bad luck if the fire went out
quickly. After the holidays had ended (twelve days of Christmas) a piece of
the log was saved to rekindle the next year's log.
• The silhouette of the Absolut bottle made from the toy train lends itself to the
concept of the tradition of Christmas, hinting at the mythical Polar Express.
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• There is a strategic placement of the silhouette of Absolut vodka bottle in the middle of the visual cliché of Christmasy items.
This is a diplomatic route to become one of the many icons that depict the tradition of Christmas celebration.
• It signifies & almost feeds the consumer with what Christmas tradition consists of
• The setting of a home signifies that drinking Absolut vodka to celebrate Christmas at home is part of the Christmas tradition
• Further there is a story being told even inside the toy train silhouette of the bottle. The setting is appears pastoral or not urbane
(ref. usage of cows, Yule log kept outside the house etc.). This setting is what probably defines the imagery of how a typical
American home looks like during Christmas time.
• It immediately talks to a socio-economic section of families
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Theme Absolut Cities: These ads are a series of cities-specific ads
Absolut Las Vegas: Published in 2003
Discourse: The idea that defines a city
Signifier: Shrimps & sauce (cap of the bottle) arranged in the shape of the Absolut
• The food connection of Las Vegas as a city opposed to the mental imagery that
one would immediately draw for it as a Casino city
• This ad is tastefully done & surely breaks the visual cliché of Las Vegas as a
city & brings out another facet of it
• One would wonder why there is an almost deliberate intention to not bring out the Sin City image of Las Vegas in this Ad
• Having vodka without food is considered the province of amateur drinkers and alcoholics. A true connoisseur will always have
something on hand to nibble after downing a glass, hence the above visual-logic would make sense.
• But we’re forced to wonder what shrimps have to do with Las Vegas?
• Las Vegas is about excesses
• This extends to shrimps which are seen as exotic food & probably invokes an elitist consumption attitude
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• There is also a hint towards using Vodka to spice up food
• It would mean enjoying the flavour of vodka as part of food & integral to preparing a modern day, exotic dish
• It extends the vodka consumption habit from merely enjoying it as a drink to using it as part of an ingredient in food
• There is a famous Las Vegas restaurant run by an equally famous Chef Alaya. Chef Alaya’s specialty in the restaurant is
Mandarin Soup which is made from Absolut Mandarin Vodka, fish among other ingredients
• The Restaurant was well known among a certain circuit of people (elite) & soon afterwards became a popular dining venue
• The follow-up for this ad was another ad which featured this Chef Alaya & which spoke of the uniqueness of his cooking with
Absolut vodka being central to some dishes
• The endeavor of the marketer can be seen clearly because another facet of the city is drawn in to bring newness not only to the
city but also to the consumption of vodka as a drink, as a food ingredient
• The shape of the bottle with the use of shrimps & the sauce at the top also represent the preparation of a dish with vodka being
an ingredient or maybe just an appetizer which goes well with the drink
• The background of water body not only goes with the logic of the shrimp (seafood) but also adds to the essence of the word
vodka. To explain this further; the appearance of the drink is not dangerous... it looks like simple water (in Russian the word
vodka means quot;little waterquot;)
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Theme Absolut Stories: These ads are the more recent ads released in
2008. The campaign theme is –In an Absolut World
In an Absolut world:
• The parts of the human body (male)
• Red roses
• Guitar & the tattoo on the mans hand
• The formal attire of the lower portion
• The specs
• The urban setting
• The contemporary furniture & décor
• The girl reading a blueprint of the package that has arrived
• The Mars symbol for male on the carton
• The dog
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• The parts of the human body (male). In today’s do-it-yourself world, one can select and assemble anything that they wish to
own or possess. In this ad the parts of the male body received by the female in a package and her effort to assemble it doesn’t
come across as odd. The reason could be the direct dig at how in the real world a perfect man would probably not exist, so one
has to look beyond. Herein the undertone of the reliance on the inanimate world to fulfill what we would want in reality.
• The body parts are mixed in terms of the colour of the male. The face appears white, the arms again white, but peculiarly the
torso is of a darker skin colour. It could be representative of a black male.
• The face being white still goes to show the racial undertone to the ad, wherein even today white skin is preferred automatically
• Coming to the individual body parts. The ad subtly puts across the definition of a perfect man. A perfect man is supposed to
buy roses for his woman, he is supposed to be suave & work as a professional. He may have other interests such as playing the
guitar. His physique has to be six pack abs. Over here maybe the use of a black male torso is used, because they’re naturally a
fitter race. The chiseled body physique can be made out even from the arms. The perfection of a man is more superficial in
nature & doesn’t touch upon his intellect as being an expectation of a woman of a perfect man.
• The urban setting & contemporary furniture and dressing of the female signify the time & the age-group that the ad addresses
• The symbol of Mars Male on the carton reinforces the heterosexuality
• The dog in the ad appears to be observing the woman assembling the man. It looks kind of scared as opposed to snooping
around the body parts. It signifies the confusion that the animal is in seeing a human body in this form
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Absolut Vodka ad campaign is undisputedly one of the big ideas in the ad industry. The evidence is that it has withstood the test of
time for over 20 years. Having gone through the ad campaign over a period of time, the semiotic of the campaign is that in the initial
years the bottle represented a person and his world. The current campaign is about the world & the people in it. The transition is
brilliant. From the marketer’s point of view, today Absolut isn’t just about America; it’s expanding its reach globally. It’s no longer
person specific & does not just focus on an individual & his story of belongingness or even identity. It is about the larger picture. It is
the world that is today & what we perceive we want it to be like. And the world today, is definitely beyond America.
In my perspective another reason for this shift is the one-to-one to many-to-one phenomenon. To elaborate further, there is a kind of
homogeneity even in the vast diversity that exists today. The homogeneity could be; a need for security from terrorism, the want of
cure to a deadly virus likes Aids, etc. The agenda in the larger sense is becoming a unifying factor for countries, states, communities &
individuals. The ad campaign address certain very universal issues & in that sense it is trying ot build a global campaign & a central
idea of what an Absolut World would be like.
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Absolut Book- Richard W. Lewis
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