Iconic Ads: Smirnoff – Message in a Bottle

A bottle of vodka served as a prism through which the dark reality of seemingly ordinary people – and the other side to them

In the United Kingdom, authorities had banned Young & Rubicam’s 1980s sexual innuendo-laden ad campaign for Smirnoff, it was time to move on to something else.

Frank Lowe of the eponymous Lowe Howard Spink advertising agency decided to work with IDV on the Smirnoff project. Additionally, IDV sought a new strategy for Smirnoff.

Great insight leads to great advertising. You can do great work in other ways, but this is a tried-and-true method (as long as the execution is engaging and memorable). If the thousands of other messages we are all exposed to each day simply push the greatest insight out of the way, it will fade into the airwaves.

Smirnoff employs a certain amount of tension in their creations. During the ‘What?’ phase of the process, you can imagine that some paradoxical answers or additional questions will arise.

Males and females between the ages of 18 and 24 were the intended demographic. The planning team’s brief was critical to the success of the campaign LHS developed.

Questions such as these surfaced.

  • What colour is this concoction, exactly?

It’s clear

  • What would you describe the flavour as?


  • What’s it do to you?

It changes you. And it changes the way you see the world.

  • So something that you can’t even see, or taste can do that?

No one can really explain what vodka does to you…but its effects are undeniable, subliminal, tacit, beguiling, even unexpected & shocking.

There was a tension between the drink’s physical characteristics and the consequences of drinking it that no one had noticed before, and it would be recognised by people all over the world.

The creative brief’s proposition was ‘The pure led astray,’ and when Chris Herring and John Merriman put it to use, it gave birth to a campaign that ran in dozens of iterations across 50 countries, all over the world.

As the bottle passes various objects, the graphic changes and creates an increasingly surreal picture. A bottle of vodka served as a prism through which the dark reality of seemingly ordinary people and things could be seen in the Smirnoff commercials.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you so much for writing about this!!! I have been trying to find information on this campaign since finding 4 prints of them (the gargoyle one, the bat woman one, the ducks flying, and one featuring garden gnomes) ripped from a magazine and stuck on the walls of my dad’s almost untouched teenage room. My grandparents (who owned the house in which his room was) were moving and throwing nearly everything away – but I thought the posters were cool, so rescued them from the chaos, taped them back to health, and put them on my own walls. Unfortunately, I am only 21, so have no memory of these ads, and couldn’t find much information about them online other than a few low-quality watermarked digital copies of them – until I found your article! Super interesting to hear about the process and learn the names behind something that has become very special to me. Thanks again!

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