Everyone rationalizes their reasons for drinking alcohol, but in reality we are secretly seeking change. Change from one mood to another, change from one social class to another—But there is an ultimate reason for drinking, a longing after an even deeper change—we are searching for another person within ourselves. Once intoxicated, we say, "Is this really me? I didn't realize that I could be that other person, too. Then I'll just drink and—reinvent myself."—Ernst Dichter, when asked for marketing advice about Absolut Vodka1
The story of Absolut Vodka is one about reinvention: transforming a Swedish social problem into an export bonanza, making over a working man's staple drink into a chic cosmopolitan choice, recrafting a nineteenth century American medicine bottle into a Scandinavian design masterpiece, recasting the nationality of vodka, and, not the least, reimagining the relationship between art and commerce.
Anyone who looks into the history of this campaign will find two very different versions. One is told by Carl Hamilton, an esteemed Swedish journalist, known for his critical perspective.2 Hamilton's exposé of the Absolut marketing coup's backstory cost him the job he once held at a prestigious Swedish economics think tank.3 His Absolut: Biography of a Bottle is a detailed account that springs back and forth across the Atlantic, as well as between decades and centuries. The other, told by Richard Lewis of TBWA, is a coffee table book that repeats, as if true, many of the fictions Hamilton uncovered. TBWA is the agency that produces the campaign and, at the time that Absolut Book was published, Lewis managed the account.4
It is impossible to determine for certain what is truth and what is fiction when comparing these two sources. As with any conflicting accounts, one must decide by noting the level of detail given, assessing the interests of the authors, inferring from the genre of the book, and so on. It appears to me that Hamilton has painstakingly assembled a narrative that no one behind the scenes really wants the public to know—and does so thoroughly enough that the text is often tedious. For a multitude of reasons, I can see his book might seem threatening. Lewis, on the other hand, is clearly producing the book as an extension of Absolut's promotional campaign. Yet, aspects of the evolution of the media campaign, in particular, could not have been known to anyone else, and I think those reports are probably fairly accurate. Using this deduced assessment of the sources, as well as work I have done on my own, I will try to tell the story of the campaign itself, focusing on the actual advertising.
The Back Story
Apparently, the Swedes have had a problem with alcoholism since the great plague of the sixteenth century. King John III ordered the royal pharmacist to concoct a remedy, which, when produced, was presented as Aqua Vitae Oppositum (the Water of Life to Cure Everything). John and his wife, Catherine Jagellonica, quickly became addicted to the elixir, which was made mostly of purified alcohol. Soon, their court was similarly attached. Even the royal princess, Elisabeth, is said to have downed more than two liters a day.5
By the early twentieth century, the ordinary Swede was drinking at least a liter and a quarter of vodka per week, and the common greeting for all visitors was "have a drink and be human."6 The leaders of the Social Democratic Party concluded that the main barrier to progress was renat, the crude vodka consumed by working men, because it kept the Swedish too drunk to participate in politics.7 So began an elaborate history of legislative controls, individual liquor rations, agricultural monopolies, and state retailing. The result was, after a very long time, to break the alcohol addiction among most Swedes, which in turn led to the burst of activity that made Sweden into a rich nation. However, the cost of this achievement was a state-owned and highly regulated liquor industry that produced only vodka made from the worst grade...