Classic Advertising from the Adbrands Archive


Smirnoff "Smarienberg" by Lowe Howard-Spink (1997)

If you visited the cinema in the Nineties in the UK, you will certainly remember the series of three 'Through the Bottle' films made by Lowe Howard-Spink for vodka brand Smirnoff, and shown along with other ads before the movie. 'Smarienberg' was the last of the trio, an electrifying spot directed by Michel Gondry.

The cinema was already virtually the only place where advertising for spirits could be seen, and Gondry's film was the perfect appetiser for the main feature, mashing up a succession of familiar movie scenarios to a thrilling breakbeat soundtrack. (This version has the original soundtrack - 'Naked & Ashamed' by Dylan Rhymes. Later edits have a different backing track.) Even now, more than 20 years later, it still looks revolutionary, not least for its early use of a 'bullet time' camera set-up to show objects frozen in time. Gondry's sequence predated The Matrix - the movie usually credited with inventing that trick - by almost a year.

Lowe's previous two spots for Smirnoff had been far more sedate, presenting a bottle of vodka as a prism through which the dark reality of seemingly ordinary people and objects was revealed. Immediate predecessor 'Russian Wedding' had a bored wedding guest peering through the bottle to see a succession of comically nightmarish visions: monsters hiding in the gifts, a gluttonous guest revealed as a giant walrus, the bride as vampire, and finally himself as a demon. Lowe copywriter Derek Apps had worked on that spot with celebrated art director Vince Squibb. For the third film he was teamed with a new art director, Mitch Levy.

Derek Apps: "Mitch and I thought it would be great to give the ad a narrative. We wanted to make it more involving than the previous ones. They were very clever but they left the viewer as a spectator watching a moving gallery of images. Instead, this ad would take them on a journey, take them through the bottle into other strange worlds. It was a very intricate piece of knitting and drove us nuts trying to write it. Especially when we decided the story had to end as it began in a great ouroboric loop. The campaign would be more exciting that way and Michel Gondry quite naturally became our choice of director to put it all together."

Shortly before he signed up for the Smirnoff film, Gondry's luminous monochrome 'Drugstore' ad for Levi's had been the toast of the Festival circuit. But the French director had first made his name in music videos with quirky hand-crafted films for the likes of Bjork, Daft Punk and the Chemical Brothers. (He brought the same eccentric and playful approach to later movies including Be Kind Rewind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.)

Apps: "His reel was sheer genius. It had to be him. It needed a devious mind. He liked the idea of going through the bottle to follow the story. He kept the opening and closing setups. We had a mermaid and merman set up he didn't like, and a straw boater that turned into the spacecraft, where he kept the spacecraft - thank goodness - but not the boater. But I think all the rest was pretty much as we wrote it.

"It was cast in the UK with a French actor playing the male lead - Michel's suggestion. Then when we couldn't find anyone over here and were running out of time we cast the leading lady in Hollywood. We shot all the exteriors in California - it gave us the Napa Valley train, the Mojave desert and San Francisco Bay and a Western Ghost town. All the rest, the interiors, were shot in glamorous North Acton. This was a cinema ad in the UK but it also existed in a number of other versions because it had to appear in over 20 different countries, each with their own requirements. A logistical nightmare for the poor producer.

"You have to remember that back then the agency and the client were united in wanting the best. Having given us the task of producing the ad, they provided us with plenty of time - I remember a long hot August, which was always a slack time in the agency just after the Spring rush yet too early for the Christmas madness. And, of course, money. You have to marvel at the power and involvement of the creative team in those days. They wrote the ad, recommended the director, went to castings, picked music, saw locations, approved set designs, helped choose wardrobe, went on the shoot, looked through camera, made helpful suggestions to the director - who was always so grateful! - sat with the editor, then finally took their baby back to the agency for approval. Of course there were many glorious battles along the way between team and director, or creative director and team... Sometimes even the creative teams themselves were found rolling on their floor pummelling each other in pursuit of a creative agreement. But on the whole it was a brilliant job to have."

What about that title? Why 'Smarienberg'? "When we were dreaming it up we trawled through a lot of stuff, graphic novels, art house films, animations. And while we sat chewing pencils in contemplation of 'the anguish of oblivion and the fixity of time', we watched 'Last Year in Marienbad'. You couldn't imagine a film more different stylistically, but it was all about enigmas and puzzles. Berg was our nod to Steven Spielberg. And 'Sm' is for Smirnoff of course!"

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