Absolutely for Sale

Dear jaded consumer: These two Houston artists are now competing for your attention. They sell ads, they're making a vodka billboard, and their client list includes Budweiser and Target. They call it art, but what advertisers want to know is, will it work

"It's a feel-good project," says Laurie Paolicelli, who purchased a spot on the suits for her employer. Paolicelli is the director of marketing for Aerial Communications in Houston, but she sounds more like an unusually hip city booster. "The Art Guys really represent Houston in such a favorable way," she says. "They really help Houston overcome some of its negative, cowboy image."

Aerial Communications, best known for buying the naming rights to the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place -- an unusual move for a wireless company -- really wants to help Houston overcome that image, and they consider themselves "enlightened" and "well-rounded" enough to recognize the city's little-publicized funky side. "Even though we're corporate," Paolicelli explains succinctly, "we really promote kind of a noncorporate ... you know."

Though cities often tout their recognition in one of Absolut Vodka's famous ads, by Paolicelli's standards, Houston probably didn't "arrive" when "Absolut Houston" debuted last fall. The ad featured a cowboy in a bullpen shaped like the famous Absolut vodka bottle. Part of Absolut's first marketing push in Texas, it was everything non-Houstonians think of when they think of Houston.

On the other hand, Paolicelli would probably say, the Art Guys' upcoming billboard is more representative of Houston's ingenious spirit. Absolut first called the Art Guys about doing a billboard a couple of years ago, and Massing says it was during a conference call with him that one of the ad men at TBWA Chiat/Day, Absolut's agency, came up with the idea for what turned out to be Absolut's first billboard in Houston, Absolut Ranch. Massing says he tried to discourage the agency from doing the ad, a parody of Cadillac Ranch, where a row of cars have been turned on end and half-buried. Massing, too, thought the ranch theme was too predictable for Houston.

The Art Guys submitted a round of proposals, but their project died on the vine, only to be revived again right about the time the Art Guys were thinking up the SUITS project. Absolut overcame their fear of having their logo displayed with other brands, and bought an ad on the SUITS. At the same time, they commissioned the billboard.

For artists looking to collapse the distinction between advertising and art, Absolut, whose campaign has been running since 1980, is a natural partner. In 1985, Absolut commissioned their first artist-designed ad, paying Andy Warhol $65,000 to make a work whose only requirement was that it incorporate the Absolut bottle. At the time, artists like Warhol, Ed Ruscha and Keith Haring had something to offer Absolut -- an association with high culture, and access to high culture's tastemaking audience.

Over time, though, Absolut has become the dominant partner in the advertising/art relationship. Now, unknown artists (who cost a few thousand as opposed to 65) get a career boost when they create an Absolut ad. Artists may not need to present their ideas in a museum, but they haven't totally cut out the middleman. Absolut itself has become an arbiter of taste -- and the company, while adventurous, chooses artists that serve its promotional needs without qualms. Enter the Art Guys, who won't say what they're being paid.

For their billboard, the Guys have returned to an earlier series, "1,000 Coats of Paint," in which they applied 1,000 layers of paint to objects such as teddy bears, telephones and eyeglasses, and then exhibited the resulting lumps. Sculptor David Poss will construct a giant Absolut bottle, and painter Bernard Brunon will, over the course of about six months, paint it -- you guessed it -- 1,000 times. Each time Brunon completes a layer, he'll flip a card that displays how many layers have been painted. Commuters will see a different color every day -- or several times a day -- and the whole project will be documented using time-lapse photography, which could then be used for a European television commercial for Absolut.

Brunon, who has requested that his logo also appear on the billboard, is excited about participating in the project, not only because it's a good part-time job with flexible hours, but because he himself wants to overcome his resistance to marketing his own work. "When I went to art school in the '70s, everything to do with marketing and money was taboo," Brunon says. "And I think that's bullshit."

The main thing the Art Guys have to learn to overcome is other people's resistance, not their own. "Everything we've ever done prior to this is like a cakewalk, a walk in the park; it's nothing," Galbreth says. Despite help from their well-connected friends, convincing the right people that SUITS is a worthwhile project has entailed endless ranks of corporate gatekeepers, transfers from department to department and conversations with people who just don't get it. Every contact is noted in a fat binder of data on prospective customers. More than 90 percent of the time, the Guys' efforts end in failure.

Playboy turned them down. BMW said no. A woman at Nike heard the word "fashion" and instantly nixed the idea (Nike is "sports apparel." They don't "do" fashion). Starbucks, MTV and AT&T said no, and Southwestern Bell claimed not to have enough money to participate.

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