RICK KARR: From natural cures to the water of life. Absolut Vodka's rise from obscurity to the top of the premium vodka category it essentially created is a case study in effective advertising. Its 25-year print campaign was simple, centered on the shape of the bottle, and memorable, if occasionally inscrutable. But this week, Absolut dropped the campaign. The brand launched its first television ad, which features images such as the Absolut Road Trip, which is an Apollo moon landing to the rest of us, and only one shot of the iconic bottle. Richard Lewis spent years at the ad agency TBWAChiatDay supervising the Absolut account. He's also written two books on the campaign, Absolut Book and Absolut Sequel. Richard, welcome to On the Media.
RICHARD LEWIS: Thank you. Good to be here.
RICK KARR: So here's a brand that, back in 1979, when it first entered the U.S. market, it was nearly unknown. It wasn't even all that – [OVERTALK]
RICHARD LEWIS: It wasn't nearly unknown. It was entirely unknown.
RICK KARR: And my understanding is it wasn't even all that popular in "Country of Sweden," as it says on the label.
RICHARD LEWIS: No. Actually, it was a product that had been around Sweden for over 100 years, but they weren't doing enough business to merit its continuation. So they really had to pump up the export. And the United States, being a rich country and a country with a lot of vodka drinkers, seemed like a great place to go.
RICK KARR: Okay. So by the early 1990s, sales of Absolut had increased about 150-fold, according to some research that we did. Is that all down to the advertising? What was it about this campaign that worked?
RICHARD LEWIS: Well, I think everything about the campaign worked because what the advertising managed to do was sort of become a cultural marker. So, for instance, when Andy Warhol anointed, in a manner of speaking, Keith Haring to do the next Absolut Artist ad, there was also an unveiling of the piece of art at the Whitney. So there was a big event, which attracted the press, that helped make the brand, you know, more well-known. What was unusual is that artists flocked to the campaign to help make themselves famous, what I call reverse borrowed interest. There was an artist, pretty well-known now, who will tell you that Absolut really launched him. His name is Romero Britto. He lives in Florida, born in Brazil, and he's a real character. And it was Absolut that put Britto on the map.
RICK KARR: That old campaign did have this iconic status. I mean, I think about college dorm rooms in the '80s or '90s where you'd see a lot of the ads on the walls of students' rooms. Was that part of the aim, to get people to almost like start collecting these ads?
RICHARD LEWIS: You can't create a campaign and say, okay, we're going to make these ads collectable. That is never going to work. But because they looked so darn good, people would want to hang them up on their walls. In fact, it even showed up in an episode of "The Sopranos," because when Meadow went to Columbia, you know, she decorated her dorm room with Absolut ads.
RICK KARR: Do you remember offhand which ads Meadow Soprano had on the walls of her room?
RICHARD LEWIS: Oh, Rick, she must have had 60 ads up on the wall.
RICK KARR: [LAUGHS]
RICHARD LEWIS: And I suspect, you know, Meadow didn't hand-pick them. But clearly in the late '80s and the early to mid-'90s there was a craze about it, deservedly so, because I think it's going to be remembered as, if not the greatest, certainly right up there, print advertising campaigns ever. You know, even Advertising Age, when it ranked the best campaigns of the 20th century, noted that Absolut, which was ranked number seven in the hundred best campaigns, was the only one to do it without TV. Print actually works. People do read magazines. Imagine that!
RICK KARR: [LAUGHS] By law, vodka has to be tasteless, colorless and odorless. I mean, vodka is pretty much vodka, right? So as an advertiser, how do you define Absolut as something that's different? Is it the "cool factor" of these cultural associations?
RICHARD LEWIS: I think people, first of all, become convinced that the vodka tastes different. Grey Goose has become a very successful brand on a taste platform. Can I identify one vodka or another after a blind taste test? Not at all. Goran Lundquist, who was the president of Absolut, had a great line. He said, "People are drinking the ads as much as they're drinking the vodka." And I think Absolut tasted better because of the advertising.
RICK KARR: Richard, thanks a lot for joining us. We appreciate it.
RICHARD LEWIS: You're welcome.
RICK KARR: Richard Lewis is an alum of the ad agency TBWAChiatDay.
RICHARD LEWIS: [CHUCKLES]
RICK KARR: And he's the author of Absolut Book and Absolut Sequel.