When Vodka Ads Go Wrong: The Absolut Controversy


We’ve discussed the recent move by vodka makers like Smirnoff to target minority customers with reality shows and ad campaigns. But vodka giant Absolut may have taken this tactic too far. The brand has created a controversy by hiring filmmaker Spike Lee – a man legendary for his honest and skillful portrayals of multicultural New York neighborhoods — to shoot the following ad for the brand:

In honor of the new flavor, limited-edition Absolut Brooklyn bottles were designed by Lee (and launched in June) as a glorification of “stoop life,” highlighting the often-overlooked steps where community is born through conversation — in particular, in poorer neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, or “Bed-Stuy.”

But neighborhood teens are questioning Lee’s integrity in participating in the campaign (and being well-paid for it, presumably).  Younger Bed-Stuy dwellers, in particular, are speaking out, very publicly. “You’re not supposed to be promoting stuff like [alcohol] in areas that can barely afford food,” said 17-year-old Shenel Gunnis to the New York Daily News. Another teen, Frank Moore, noted that the ads were particularly offensive due to the borough’s high alcoholism rates.

Absolut is among the many vodka brands increasing luxury and targeted branding, but controversies like this one could hurt the reputations of all involved. Still, a good argument can be made for the ad campaign’s effectiveness, in spite of, or even because of the added publicity from the Spike Lee dispute. After all, Lee is a controversial director — it seems only logical that hiring him to direct ads for a product like alcohol could evoke controversy.

As of yet, both Absolut and Spike Lee have made no comment.