The helicopter makes a choppy ascent, rising 2,000 feet above eastern Kansas, and the world suddenly becomes an endless sprawl of scrubby farms and blue skies. Brisk winds tear through the open space where a door should be, and the copter rumbles and rocks like a big piece of ice in a giant blender. ''Look down,'' the pilot urges. I gingerly glance beyond the tips of my sneakers just in time to see plots of oats, clover, and milo magically transform into a giant, homegrown rendering of an Absolut vodka bottle that has been dubbed ''Absolut Landmark.'' Later, photographer Jon Blumb flies still higher, hangs out of the helicopter, and shoots the field.
His photograph will illustrate the latest entry in a 10-year-old print advertising campaign that has brought Absolut Vodka a number of industry awards and a le sales of the sort that advertising people usually only dream about. The concept behind all the ads a two-word headline below a photograph of a bottle customized to match the playful prose is deceptively simple. But its success is indisputably dramatic. Since TBWA Advertising began the campaign in 1981, Absolut's U.S. sales have gone from zero to almost 3 million cases a year; in 1989, sales of the Swedish potable passed those of all other imported vodkas. In magazines from the ultra-obscure R.O.M.E. (a trendy fanzine covering nightlife and fashion) to The New Yorker, the Absolut bottle has been formed from lemon rind (''Absolut Appeal''), swathed in chains (''Absolut Security'') before being stolen on the next page (''Absolut Larceny''), and encased in clear vinyl so plastic snowflakes could flurry down on it (''Absolut Wonderland'').
The Kansas effort, which is set to debut this spring, is the latest installment in Absolut's artists series, in which painters, sculptors, and photographers create their versions of the bottle. Michel Roux,the president-CEO of Carillon Importers Ltd., Absolut's agent and marketer in the U.S., dreamed up that approach ''the first good idea I ever got from a client,'' says TBWA chairman Bill Tragos and commissioned Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Ed Ruscha, Kenny Scharf, and, most recently, 26 Soviet artists (''Absolut Glasnost''). The American artists earned $65,000 per ad far less than their works typically fetch while imbuing the product with a hipness few liquors can boast.
''Andy was our first artist,'' Roux says. ''He didn't drink, but claimed to use Absolut as perfume. He loved the idea (of doing the ad), and his name attracted other people.''