Until recently, it hadn’t crossed my mind that I could be Kanye West. I did a double take the first time I saw the advertisement one morning on a downtown C-train: “Be someone else. Be KANYE!” the large print suggested. “For a few hours or a lifetime, now anytime can be Kanye time in an Absolut world…. Fast-acting tablets transform anyone into Kanye West,” it continued. Even Kanye himself—who as we know, doesn’t mince words —promised: “Two fast-acting Be KANYE Tablets can unleash the superstar within.” By dialing 1-877-BeKanye or visiting bekanyenow.com, the transformation could be mine.
Did I want to Be Kanye? The bling beckoned. But what, I hedged, might be the side effects. Deciding I’d wait for official FDA approval, I turned my thoughts to wondering how this peculiar and politically incorrect endorsement had elbowed its way into the subway’s ad space. My assumption was graphic guerilla tactics—someone had snuck onto the train late at night and replaced an NYPD recruitment poster with the suggestion of Being Kanye as an alternative route to self-improvement. It was not until I got to work that morning and as first order of procrastination, went to bekanyenow.com, that I learned that BeKanye is Absolut Vodka’s new ad campaign.
At a glance, or even a look, you are not meant to know that ingesting BeKanye Tablets stands for drinking Absolut Vodka—the brand name is only printed twice and in both cases, through clever graphic maneuvers, it is practically invisible.
Why would an advertisement conceal the brand-name it endorses?
Based on my own personal experience, here’s how the strategy works: the potential customer is caught off-guard by the advertisement’s parodic irreverence; in the few moments before her subway stop, she tries to synthesize the different elements of the poster in order to reconcile it with the eye-numbing blanket advertising by Metrocard and American Mall; she hasn’t cracked it by the time she gets off the train, so when she arrives at work she asks her co-workers if they’ve seen the ad to Be Kanye; either they have, and a conversation ensues, or they haven’t, in which case she goes online where she ends up at Absolut Vodka’s website (and if she’s really ambitious—or bored—she might even try the hotline, which is a humorous testament to the thoroughness of this ad campaign); finally she shares the information with her co-workers and later on, maybe with her friends. Through the BeKanye ad, Absolut actively engages its potential customer, as opposed to the standard ad’s subliminal influence, which operates more subtly and cumulatively over time.
The BeKanye ad’s hook is designed for the distracted New York subway rider who is too rushed or distracted to read the fine print (even if she does look up from her book, newspaper, magazine, video game, DVD, Blackberry, Trio, Palm, iphone, ipod, or Sudoku); its content resides off the subway and on the information superhighway.
Why write about an Absolut Vodka advertisement on a blog about contemporary art?
It seems to me that the BeKanye ad strategy shows visual production being organized around its adjacent technologies (the subway and internet) and the kind of audiences these technologies produce (the harried commuter and idle employee). Throughout its history and into the present, art, as a branch of visual production, gets reconfigured through this process as well. Certainly there’s not room here to do justice to this corner of art history, but let’s turn briefly to one of its protagonists: the Hungarian artist László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946). (I have to say, I never thought I’d put Kanye and Moholy in the same paragraph—please permit me to roll with the synapses.)
In his book Vision in Motion (published in 1947), Moholy considers the ways in which technology reorients the individual’s visual experience of the urban world around him. In the chapter “Space-Time Problems” Moholy cites an experiment carried out in 1937 by the French poster designer Jean Carlu. Carlu placed two posters on two conveyor belts which were set to different speeds. Each speed was meant to approximate the velocity at which the posters would have been seen by a viewer traveling in a typical vehicle of the era in which the posters were respectively created. One conveyor belt corresponded to the speed of a horse and buggy, six to seven miles an hour; the other belt moved at fifty miles per hour, the speed of a fast-moving car. The slow conveyor belt moved a poster made by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in the 1890s; the fast belt moved a contemporary (i.e. 1930s) poster. Both posters could be read easily at the speeds corresponding to their contemporaneous means of transportation, but when the Toulouse-Lautrec poster was placed on the faster conveyor belt, it was a blur. Moholy’s summary of these and similar findings: advertising had been translated into a “kinetic process.”
The new Absolut ad supports Moholy’s assertion: what BeKanye’s kinetics propose, are that in the twenty-first century, physical ad space is merely the arena for a flirtatious wink—the date happens in the great expanse of the World Wide Web and wireless networks. Absolut hopes that from there it may go home with you. That’s your business. But I’ll leave you with a question whose answer affects us all: is Kanye the new Zizmor?