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How do you uncool the most abused drug ever invented? In 1991 vodka advertising superheroes were ploughing the market with the leading liquor brand campaign of the advertising age: Absolut Vodka. Their meme was smart, simple and ultra cool … a feeling, a slogan, a bottle. The campaign was the envy of any designer’s portfolio but it left out one crucial part of alcohol’s story. Booze is the leading factor in auto accidents, broken homes, spousal battery, child abuse, sexual assault and personal bankruptcy. If ever a product deserved a tactical détournement it was this. That same year Adbusters launched the Absolut Nonsense culture jam.
Within days of publication, threats from Absolut began arriving at Adbusters HQ. First a heady phone call, then a stern letter, then an ultimatum: pull the ad or else. We said it was satire and fair comment. They said it was slander and damaging to their brand’s reputation. With the slickest team of international corporate lawyers their money could buy, Absolut demanded Adbusters remove all copies of the magazine from shelves, print an extensive public apology and promise never to do anything like it again.
After a few anxiety ridden days, weighing the consequences of principled stance or financial ruin, Adbusters went on the offensive. Instead of apologizing, we sent out a worldwide press release, printing bites from megacorp Absolut’s threat to shut Adbusters down. This was followed up with an even more provocative Absolut Vodka spoof in the next issue of Adbusters that kicked off an Absolut Vodka spoof competition, to which hundreds replied with their own spoofed renditions of the famed alcohol campaign. Teachers and students sent us bundles of alcohol spoofs brainstormed in their classrooms. Meanwhile, the Absolut ultimatum caught the eye of media and free speech advocates in North America, who began readying themselves to roll up their sleeves in defense of truth and fair comment. As the public backlash mounted, Absolut hardened their tone and then did the unthinkable … they backed down.
We never heard from them again.
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