Hey, what about an Absolut Ecotopia?

A vodka ad stirs anger and nationalism, tapping a history that links to the fight for the Pacific Northwest.
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A vodka ad stirs anger and nationalism, tapping a history that links to the fight for the Pacific Northwest.

You may have heard Internet buzz over a recent ad for Absolut Vodka in Mexico that, according to the Los Angeles Times, the company said was "designed for a Mexican audience and intended to recall 'a time which the population of Mexico might feel was more ideal.'" The text of the ad read "In an Absolut World" and ran across a map of North America showing the border of Mexico encompassing the Pacific Coast to Oregon and most of the Southwest, including Texas. In short, the pre-Mexican War boundaries. In other words, sip Absolut vodka and dream of Mexico as it should be. Needless to say, the ad drove people like former Seattle Times columnist and conservative blogger Michelle Malkin nuts. She dubbed the ad "Absolut Reconquista."

The Swedish booze-maker was throwing vodka on a border fire. They have now beat a hasty retreat and apologized for the ad. Some angry Americans have called for a boycott. One Latino blogger in Texas, Julio Gonzalez Altamirano, says the problem with the ad isn't the notion of promoting a Mexican invasion of America, but rather exploiting nationalism to sell liquor:

There is something utterly disingenuous about a Swedish vodka brand playing on Mexican nationalism with an ad that features English copy (!). I mean come on, does the company really care about the aspirations of the average Mexican citizen? I sincerely doubt it. They do care about sales, though. Sure, the add [sic] is tongue-in-cheek and we should have a sense of humor about it. But there is definitely something unappealing about a corporation exploiting the real resentments present in a developing country as a way of establishing brand appeal. It's socially irresponsible given that there are many other ways to establish that appeal and provide healthy return to investors without relying on mobilizing nationalism.

Not all utopian fantasies are equal. I suspect that an "Absolut Ecotopia" ad in the Pacific Northwest wouldn't have hit anyone's hot-button — save maybe the Building Industry Association of Washington's Tom McCabe, who worries about the fascist and Stalinist impulses [PDF] of environmentalists. And back in the late 1990s, when I edited Eastsideweek, we ran a humorous campaign making the case for Bellevue and environs to secede and form "the People's Republic of the Eastside." If I remember right, the readers voted to name the new country "Bytebourg."

On the other hand, imagine the response to, say, an "Absolut Confederacy" ad running in the Deep South. The politics of that fantasy would likely be explosive.

The reason that the Mexican ad hit Malkin's sore spot is that she believes the fantasy is more than a joke or a thought experiment: that deep in the heart of some Mexicans is a desire to recapture lost lands north of the border and that one of the means of doing that is through immigration, legal and illegal.

These notions are rooted in history. The European empires fought for control of this continent. An interesting sidelight: Last week, in a lengthy and well-attended formal ceremony at the state Capitol in Olympia, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen was knighted by the King of Spain. (You can see the whole thing on TVW, hosted by Enrique Cerna of KCTS-TV.) One of the stated reasons Owen was honored (you may now call him Sir or Don Owen now) is that he helped get a monument placed at Neah Bay commemorating the first European settlement in what is now Washington state: the Spanish fort of Núñez Gaona.

The Spanish at one time claimed the entire Pacific coast, but this was contested by the British as early as 1579, when Sir Francis Drake, sent by Queen Elizabeth to explore and claim the region for England, stopped somewhere (theories place his "lost" anchorage anywhere from San Francisco and the Oregon Coast to British Columbia or even Alaska) and declared us Nova Albion — the mythic name for early England.

Both the Spanish and the British at various times said their territorial claims preceded Columbus. Some in Spain theorized that Columbus had merely re-discovered lands lost at an earlier time — which happened to jibe with the notion of the re-conquest — or "reconquista" — of Spain from the Arabs. In other words, we're not invading, we're simply taking what was originally ours. Drake's voyage was rationalized the same way. The British claimed that the far north had been explored and settled by King Arthur, no less, and thus were historically already England's.

Since Albion means "white," imagine the offense given if the company ran an "Absolut Albion" campaign in Northern Idaho for all those vodka-drinkers in Aryan compounds!

So while one can dismiss the current "reconquista" fears of Malkin as an anti-immigrant conspiracy theory or the harmless fantasy of Mexican vodka drinkers, I think it's only fair to acknowledge that wars of empire today are still played out in economic, ethnic, and cultural code, and that the concept of re-conquest has been used to justify nationalistic actions in the past. One nation's "Absolut World" might well turn out to be another's bad hangover. Marketers beware.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.