Lessons Learned from an Absolut Vodka Ad

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein

Making People Care about Public Health

Get to the Point.jpg

One reason I chose public health as a profession rests on the sector’s ability to merge its motivation to constantly improve the human experience through the lens of science.  Contextualized to fit various human conditions by subjective tweaking — such as offering access to certain types of fresh produce over another in different regions of the country given culturally-based preferences — empirical interpretations of the world around us shapes our public health interventions.  It is imperative to hone said subjectivity as we engage the right partners in developing cross-sector partnerships. Successful partnerships in public health require aligning the overarching goal(s) of proposed interventions with potential partners whose skills, values system, and capital best facilitates achievement of our goal(s).

The most entrenched of public health issues must be addressed in a long-term, collaborative manner.  Emerging biological threats, health inequity, and unbalanced social capital, among others comprise present day public health problems arising from a myriad of social, physical and psychological determinants of health.  So, how do we keep our partners — both public and private — interested when grabbing and holding their attention with hardcore numbers screaming “public health crisis” no longer suffice?  As one starting point, we must (continue to) appeal to their values system by clearly articulates what’s in it for them — should they consider partnering with us.  Such an approach should not be misconstrued as engaging in our public health work from a place devoid of passion; it is quite the contrary.


We all have a value system, guiding principles channeling our passion into doing the things we do within the realm of civility and legality.  From a public health’s perspective — and I would imagine others — appealing to one’s value system starts with learning and catering to what matters to people.  As an American citizen, being able to freely exercise my First Amendment rights within the parameters of contributing to the greater good, decency and lawfulness are paramount.

Now consider how any given adverse public health circumstance encroaches upon one’s freedom to interact with the world.  Such an infringement may manifest as social injustice trampling one’s right to peacefully assemble because laws are being enacted or considered by several state legislatures which would decriminalize plowing crowds with Dodge Challengers — or other 4,500-pound objects.  Another may be illustrated as not earning a livable wage despite working 40+ hours weekly, which may place a safer neighborhood or healthier meals just that much farther out of reach.  Still another example shows up as unchecked industrial pollution desecrating one’s environment — at times turning them into Superfund sites.

None of these scenarios can be addressed by any one sector, irrespective of its intrinsic motivations.  Potential partners are inundated with their own personal and professional demands, having to make tough decisions on which to focus their time and resources.  Clearly articulating your cause in a way that resonates with their values and priorities is challenging.  However, facing a difficult goal is no reason to forego pursuing it.

What does this have to do with the booze?

Mexico City Absolut Ad
Abolut Vodka Ad in Mexico City

The decision to write this piece came to me while vacationing in Mexico City with my partner — who was there for work.  Sitting in the back of an Uber at the intersection of Paseo la Reforma and Calle Florencia in the Juárez district, awaiting a green light, an Absolut Vodka ad caught my eye.  The ad tied the liquor to one’s valuing a walkable, bicycle-friendly global metropolis such as Mexico City.  It featured two images — the left one showed a city congested with snarled traffic above which judged the word “Obsolete.”  In an adjacent bike lane, cyclists donning helmets appeared to be moving without obstruction.  The word “Progressive” sat atop the cyclists; below them signaled the call to action “create a better tomorrow.”  The second image to the right of the cyclists beamed the signature Absolut bottle silhouette and the word “Absolut.”  This billboard drew an audible “oh” from me as the Uber driver began barreling toward the next intersection.

With fewer than 10 written words, the ad expressed what I believe to be, if you consume our product you can move about your life in a free, progressive manner that works for you and aligns with your values.  Alternatively, I thought the ad conveyed —  imbibing any other liquor is antiquated, and who wants to be considered old fashioned?  In appealing to the intended audience’s values system, Absolut tied consuming its liquor to cycling through a major city, resonating with millions of people seeking cheaper and physically active modes of transportation, that do not add to the already massive global carbon footprint, which has been deemed responsible for life threatening and possibly economy-tanking climate change — long sentence notwithstanding.  Also, wasting time sitting in a car going nowhere fast — something we all loathe —  was rebuked by the word “obsolete;” with Absolut offering a more exhilarating experience accessible through drinking its liquor.  Consider the value system engaged.

So, what?  I am a public health professional; celebrating a liquor ad seems anathema to the existence of my whole being.  Nonsense — one of my most fervent personal ethos is to learn anything from anybody, anywhere.  Illustrating the what’s in if for me and for you as the potential partner, consumer, spouse, insert prioritized person is the best way to develop and sustain productive partnerships.  Absolut does this with the ad I saw — if you purchase and consume Absolut, you are “progressive” and thus in an odd and seemingly preposterous way may be helping the planet, something you really think is important.  A business—consumer relationship is established as a result of buying the company’s liquor.

A partnership between public health folks and x group, organization, etc., would manifest differently yet on the same principle — to achieve something each involved party desires.  Absolut wants to sell a product and establish a new type of consumer base, for instance, and the consumer wants to live the life of a “progressive” which seems to involve purchasing and drinking Absolut.  The ad targets a very specific audience with correspondingly specific values.  It is not meant to appeal to everyone — neither should public health professionals’ partnership development outreach efforts.


Now you may think, wait, I thought your passion was to do the most good for the most people and not for specific people with specific values?  That remains true — however specific people with certain strengths and complimentary motivations are necessary to do the most good for the most people.  In a separate post, I discuss three main reasons people tend to enter partnerships — in the case of the Mexico City Absolut ad, why would a person choose to drink the company’s liquor which makes the imbiber a part of the “progressive” crowd, group, partnership, or insert association.  Yet still, another write-up will emphasize four typical approaches to take in leveraging secured partners’ strengths to achieve shared goals — or “Create a better tomorrow.”