Absolut D’oh!

Absolut tries for an inspiring new viral ad…and promptly gets called out for aping a design master


Just a couple days ago, Absolut revealed its newest series of ads by TBWA/Chiat/Day with the tagline “Doing something differently leads to something exceptional.” Watch the spot, and it’s kind of heartwarming–as Absolut is happy to write on its YouTube page, “A group of artists come together in
locations around the world to create art pieces that spell out the
philosophy of Absolut Vodka.” Awww! But not so fast: Commentary about the ads–which are being flogged in a Facebook-based campaign, among other places–immediately pointed out the eerie similarity with a long-running project, “This I Have Learned in My Life So Far,” by massively influential graphic designer Stegan Sagmeister:

But it doesn’t quite end there: As a commenter on that video notes, the idea of bending unusual materials into the service of typography has existed since time immemorial–even if Sagmeister has partly made a career out of exploring and honing that idea. So Sagmeister might not have been a pure inventor (alums from his own studio have been doing similar works in recent days).

Still, in light of the fact that Sagmeister just had an exhibition of this work last year in New York, he does seem like the clearest, most obvious source of “inspiration” for these ads. No one else has been flogging these sorts of experiments in such a high profile way–and, in particular, the “imparted wisdom” angle that runs through both the Sagmeister work and the Absolut ad makes the latter look particularly derivative.

Bottom line: Absolut sort of shot itself in the foot, in at least one sense. For these types of experimental ads, the very first audience is usually the creative community itself–which then spreads the word, into wider and wider circles. That’s the working model for these new sorts of meta ads (which, like Absolut, come side-by-side with making of videos). But judging by the comments on the Absolut ad, the very community meant to spread the word just smells a rat.

Couldn’t they have just hired Sagmeister? Or did Sagmeister turn them down? This whole thing reminds us of several instances when ad agencies have ripped off artists–as with this Apple ad which stole from a famous film by Christian Marclay. It was promptly yanked when Marclay revealed that he’d turned Apple down, only to see them help themselves.


Incidentally, there’s one other interesting parallel between the Apple and Absolut cases: Both are clients of TBWA/Chiat/Day. But that’s surely just a coincidence?

[Via Kitsune Noir]


About the author

Cliff was director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.