Absolut uncorks short-story contest Douglas Coupland


From The Globe & Mail (January 20, 1998)

by Elizabeth Renzetti

Writers have traditionally been regarded as boozehounds of the highest order, which may be why Absolut Vodka has bought their stories to advertise its product.

The new marketing blitz has two components. One set of ads for the Swedish vodka features short stories by writers such as U.S. writer Dominick Dunne and Vancouver's Douglas Coupland (who donated his fee of $7,500 [U.S.] to charity). At the same time, the vodka company is running a short-story contest in conjunction with Toronto-based Saturday Night magazine, with which it already has a history of sponsorship.

The contest is advertised in the current issue of Saturday Night. It reads: "Absolut and Saturday Night Magazine challenge you to take part in the Absolut Story contest . . . The actual content of the 'Absolut Story' is completely up to the imagination and creativity of the entrant. However, the story must include the words 'Absolut Vodka' to be eligible."

The contest, which originated in the advertising department of Saturday Night, "is an advertising project, not an editorial project," according to editor Kenneth Whyte.

The ad, however, promises that the contest will be judged by "a panel of Saturday Night Magazine editors." Whyte said he's not yet sure who will be on that panel; at the same time, the Absolut-sponsored contest does not breach the barrier traditionally observed between advertising and editorial, he said. "It doesn't affect the integrity of the magazine in the least . . . . People know Saturday Night is a magazine that publishes good journalism. It's known for its integrity."

The winner of the contest will receive $2,500 and see his or her story published as an Absolut ad. What if one of the submissions deals with cirrhosis or drunk driving? "Is it a good story?" Whyte asked in response. "All the stories will be judged on literary merit."

Last year, Saturday Night raised some eyebrows when it allowed Absolut to sponsor an excerpt from Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version. The excerpt was labelled "Absolut Mordecai" and the text of the story was designed to suggest the vodka company's familiar bottle-shaped ads.

Meanwhile, Absolut, known for years for its cutting-edge advertisements, has launched a campaign of short stories by well-known writers. Dunne, often a voice of moral indignation, has written a Noel Coward-ish tale about a stylish divorced couple, which appears in the February Vanity Fair. At one point, the suave protagonist, trying to win back his wife, says "You may not believe this either, but when I left my apartment, this bottle of Absolut was beautifully wrapped in silver paper with dark blue ribbons. . . ."

Coupland, author of Generation X andthe upcoming Girlfriend in a Coma,is donating the fee he received for his story to the Western Canada Wilderness Committee. "I said I'd do it if they agreed to put a strip at the bottom saying that my honorarium was being given to the Western Canada Wilderness Committee," explained Coupland in an E-mail interview from Vancouver. "I didn't want any confusion about that. They agreed. I'm the only person they've ever agreed to do this with."

He added, "I can't think of an easier way of donating a heap of money to my favorite charity. Artists get asked to donate works to charity all the time but there's precious little writers can do or donate."

Coupland said that the company had not asked for any editorial control or changes to his story, which is set at the Los Angeles World Fair of 2003. He was, however, required to mention the name of the product once.

Absolut is distributed by Canadian-based distillery giant Seagram Co. Ltd.. Executives in charge of the campaign at Seagrams New York office were not available for comment yesterday due to observance of Martin Luther King's Birthday in the United States.