Absolut's message -- The vodka maker finds charm on a farm with a Crop Art message

The helicopter makes a choppy ascent, rising 2,000 feet above eastern Kansas, and the world suddenly becomes an endless sprawl of scrubby farms and blue skies. Brisk winds tear through the open space where a door should be, and the copter rumbles and rocks like a big piece of ice in a giant blender. ”Look down,” the pilot urges. I gingerly glance beyond the tips of my sneakers just in time to see plots of oats, clover, and milo magically transform into a giant, homegrown rendering of an Absolut vodka bottle that has been dubbed ”Absolut Landmark.” Later, photographer Jon Blumb flies still higher, hangs out of the helicopter, and shoots the field.

His photograph will illustrate the latest entry in a 10-year-old print advertising campaign that has brought Absolut Vodka a number of industry awards and a le sales of the sort that advertising people usually only dream about. The concept behind all the ads — a two-word headline below a photograph of a bottle customized to match the playful prose — is deceptively simple. But its success is indisputably dramatic. Since TBWA Advertising began the campaign in 1981, Absolut’s U.S. sales have gone from zero to almost 3 million cases a year; in 1989, sales of the Swedish potable passed those of all other imported vodkas. In magazines from the ultra-obscure R.O.M.E. (a trendy fanzine covering nightlife and fashion) to The New Yorker, the Absolut bottle has been formed from lemon rind (”Absolut Appeal”), swathed in chains (”Absolut Security”) before being stolen on the next page (”Absolut Larceny”), and encased in clear vinyl so plastic snowflakes could flurry down on it (”Absolut Wonderland”).

The Kansas effort, which is set to debut this spring, is the latest installment in Absolut’s artists series, in which painters, sculptors, and photographers create their versions of the bottle. Michel Roux,the president-CEO of Carillon Importers Ltd., Absolut’s agent and marketer in the U.S., dreamed up that approach — ”the first good idea I ever got from a client,” says TBWA chairman Bill Tragos — and commissioned Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Ed Ruscha, Kenny Scharf, and, most recently, 26 Soviet artists (”Absolut Glasnost”). The American artists earned $65,000 per ad — far less than their works typically fetch — while imbuing the product with a hipness few liquors can boast.

”Andy was our first artist,” Roux says. ”He didn’t drink, but claimed to use Absolut as perfume. He loved the idea (of doing the ad), and his name attracted other people.”

None of this could have been on Geoff Hayes’ mind back in 1980 when TBWA’s then-art director (he’s now a senior vice president-executive art director) stepped out of the bathtub and settled down in his Manhattan living room for an hour or two of television. Hayes, layout pad in hand, mulled over concepts for a liquor known mainly in Sweden. Impressed by the softly curved bottle, he sketched it, printed ”Absolut Perfection,” and added a halo and wings. Then he thought up several other ads. They all said ”Absolut something” and played off the packaging.

A couple of weeks later, Roux told Hayes to proceed with ”Absolut Perfection” — minus the wings. ”In large part, this ad is a client’s dream,” says Hayes, sitting behind a mammoth black slab of a desk in his cluttered Madison Avenue office. ”You have a picture of the bottle and a two-word headline with the product’s name in it.”

The ads quickly became a conversational staple in media circles. ”Just going to bars back then was the best,” Hayes recalls. ”Originally everybody thought that Absolut would be drunk only neat or on the rocks because it was a premium liquor. But all of a sudden I heard people ordering Absolut bloody Marys, Absolut black Russians, and Absolut screwdrivers.” More than a drink, the brand had become something of a fashion accessory. Advertising had turned a cocktail into an icon.

After seven-and-a-half years as the account’s primary writer-designer, Hayes felt monopolized by the Absolut ads. He decided to work directly on other campaigns (such as one for Bombay Gin) while supervising this one. Because of Absolut’s high recognition, new creative teams were free to experiment with concepts that didn’t include the bottle and logo. They produced ads like ”Absolut Subliminal,” which featured a simple shot of the vodka over ice, with the brand name written in the cubes. But freedom doesn’t guarantee quality. TBWA vice president-senior art director Tom McManus and copywriter David Warren take the blame for several Absolut dogs. ”One of the worst has got to be ‘Absolut Chic,”’ McManus says. ”It was going to have a bottle with a turban on it. You know, ‘Absolut Chic…Sheik…”’ His voice trails off. ”It wound up in the creative director’s trash basket.”

The city campaign the two cooked up in 1987 received a warmer response. ”Absolut Chicago” showed the label type blowing through the air, ”Absolut L.A.” depicted a cool swimming pool in the shape of the bottle, and ”Absolut San Francisco” shrouded the product in fog. But when the time arrived to create an ad for the city they live in, the two were stumped. ”Finally a shotgun was put to our heads and we were told to create an ‘Absolut Manhattan’ ad straight away,” McManus recalls. ”I said, ‘This might be a dumb idea, but why don’t we turn Central Park into the bottle?”’

Retouchers, working with an aerial photograph of the island, snipped and shaded the park to make it look like the bottle, and the creative team’s favorite ad was born. ”Not showing the actual product is a real no-no,” McManus explains. ”The fact that they would let us do ads like these says a lot about the client’s faith in its agency.”

Going against conventional wisdom is precisely what made the Swedish vodka campaign a hit in the first place. What other advertiser could convince the world’s hottest artists to do commercial illustrations? Or stake a high-profile ad on the vagaries of weather, crops, and aerial photography?

On this cool fall afternoon in Kansas, Absolut’s newest bit of risk-taking looks about ready to pay off. As photographer Blumb prepares to shoot the ad, 40-year-old Stan Herd puts the finishing touches on his environmental artwork. Behind the wheel of a tractor, dressed in beat-up denims and cowboy boots, Herd looks more like a farmer than a painter. That’s fitting because his canvas is a 650,000-square-foot rectangle of fertile land leased from farmer Junior Neis. Since last April Herd has been growing, tilling, and trimming crops to resemble a bottle from the air. ”I drew a grid showing how I wanted the final image to look and used flags to block out 100-foot squares of the actual field,” explains the artist, who won this assignment after mailing TBWA photos of his other agro-art-portraits of Indian chief Satanta and Will Rogers and a sunflower homage to Vincent Van Gogh. ”When it came time to plow out the crops, I simply consulted my sketch and worked with the grains and colors to create the image.”

Sunset (and the superb shooting light that comes with it) approaches as Herd scrutinizes a Polaroid of the field. The helicopter buzzes overhead and his crew does a frenzied bit of styling around clumps of clover that make up the neck of the bottle. ”A few weeks from now, early in the morning when the frost comes in, we’re going to shoot this again, and it’ll look really nice,” Herd says. ”Then we’ll get the bottle under snow, and we’ll also get it when the wheat tips turn red from the cold.” He hesitates before voicing a prediction the Absolut people would doubtless apply to the entire campaign: ”We’ll just keep shooting this thing till the cows come home.”

Later, Herd warms up in a farmhouse with a cup of coffee and a fresh-baked muffin and discusses his assignment. ”It pays well, allows me to work with leading-edge advertising people, and exposes my work to a public that might not ordinarily see it,” he says. ”Besides, I was given the freedom to do what I wanted. After submitting a drawing, I met with Michel Roux, and by the end of the day he commissioned me to do the ad.” Herd gestures toward the sculpted field. ”So I did.”