By Joyce Rutter Kaye
The improbable scenarios of some of today’s most attention-getting advertising wouldn’t be possible without the sleight-of-handiwork of McConnell & Borow, creators of sets and props that bring fantasies to lIfe.
Creatives at TBWA Advertising in New York can’t get over one trend rippling through high schools these days. It’s not sucking pacifiers or wearing gargantuan-sized pants, although those are admittedly peculiar pastimes. It’s collecting print advertisements for Absolut Vodka, an account TBWA has handled since 1980—and has managed to hold onto, even after distribution rights to the vodka unexpectedly shifted from Carillon Importers Ltd. to the Seagram Company on February 1.
Absolut isn’t marketing to teenagers a Ia Joe Camel; fans say the ads’ collectibility lies in their cleverness and continual ability to surprise. The trend is one more sign that Absolut’s long-running and highly publicized campaign has transcended its vehicle as advertising and entered into the vernacular. “People are now seeing the ads as sep- arate from the product,” explains Arnie Arlow, the executive VP—creative director who heads the account. “As a result, you can do things to up the ante each time.” In other words, it’s the ad that sells itself Knowing this, TBWA continually tries to tempt consumers with ever more sophisticated versions of its recipe in which consistency is mixed with surprise. The consistency, of course, lies in coupling an image of the bottle with a punning headline. When the campaign began, the bottle was photographed with simple embellishments like a halo, with the headline “Absolut Perfection.” After the campaign became known, the agency was able to play off this product-as-hero formula by transforming the bottle itself—embedding that image into landscapes, molding it in another medium, like a lemon peel, or allowing it to be interpreted by artists and fashion designers. “By being consistent with the image of the bottle, by showing it the same size, in the same place, after a while you earn the privilege of taking that another step, which is forgetting the actual bottle and doing things to replicate it,” Arlow says. The image of the bottle has appeared in the form of Central Park, a swimming pool in L.A., the Kentucky Derby, and in recent months, as trumpet valves in “Absolut New Orleans.”
This strategy, backed with a whopping $25- to $30-million annual budget—the largest in the spirits industry—has been effective: Sales of Absolut have grown from 125,000 cases in 1980 to 3 million today, making it the best-selling imported vodka in the country. Industry experts credit not only the agency for this growth, but also Michel Roux, Carillon’s flamboyant president and CEO, who is considered the image-maker behind the campaign. In a stunning turn of events on January 12, Pepsico assigned Carillon the rights to Stolichnaya, which means Roux is now responsible for marketing a former rival. Whether Absolut will maintain a steady course in its advertising is anyone’s guess.
While Roux may be responsible for the creative genius behind Absolut’s ever-transforming bottle, carrying some of those ideas off logistically is another story. Key to the success of many of these improbable scenarios is the work of McConnell & Borow, a New York modelmaking shop headed by Mark Borow. The shop realizes many of Absolut’s fantasies with sleight of hand, ingenuity, and sweat. Together with his loosely organized staff of three to six freelancers, Borow has created miniature sets and props for more than 40 Absolut ads— some of which look shockingly realistic: Along with the celebrated “Absolut L.A.,” some of their best-known examples include “Absolut Miami,” a classic Art Deco hotel at dusk; “Absolut Pittsburgh,” a bottle made of molten steel; and “Absolut Peak,” a mountain ski resort with a bottle-shaped trail cut into the trees. While several dozen other modelmakers work in New York, Borow has cornered the market because of his knack for miniature set-building, a craft that has obsessed him since fourth grade, when he would build 4-long Easter dioramas for his elderly teacher. Along with having a fascination for all things small, Borow delights in taking something ordinary out of context. “For me, it makes people tune in to what reality is,” he says. “It’s like what Andy Warhol did with a soup can. It’s a way of relating something from everyday that you take for granted.”
Ironically, the better the set, the more invisible the hand behind it. When executed very well, most people shouldn’t know there’s a model or a set at all—that’s why everyone still believes the swimming pool in “Absolut L.A.” was really and truly shot in Bel-Air. (It was a 10’-by-lO’ miniature set made by Borow and photographed by Steve Bronstein.) “The trick to this business is fooling the eye,” says sculptor Mark Varvoutis, who supports his art by working at M&B as a freelance modelmaker. “Like art, it’s a mixture of science and mystery.” Indeed, once you know food stylists rely on instant mashed potatoes or Crisco to simulate a scoop of ice cream, you will never drool over a sundae in Good Housekeeping again. Likewise, Borow and his modelmakers have faked palm trees with feathers in “Absolut Miami” wrought-iron with paper doilies in a Heinz ad, and Kentucky Derby spectators with multicolored candy sprinkles in “Absolut Louisville.” For Borow and Varvoutis, problem-solving in three dimensions is the most creative part of the job. “The fun part is coming up with the way things are done,” says Varvoutis. “The rest is just executing it.”
Although it may appear simple to substitute one material for another, elements such as scale, lighting, point of view, and budget also play a crucial role in the believability of an ad. By working closely with a photographer, modelmakers know which details must be perfect and which can be fudged. In general, models for print rarely have to be finished in the back. If a set is being shot from a great distance, textures are more important than small details. Lighting, of course, makes all the difference. Typically, shadows and soft lighting can hide a multitude of sins, but you can’t always use them. “The Absolut ads are very hard-edged, not moody, so we have to be very accurate with detail,” says photographer Steve Bronstein, who has commissioned McConnell & Borow for years for Absolut work, as well as other campaigns. “They generally have a lot of depth of field, so everything in them has to be good.” The goal, says Borow, is to complete as many of these details as budget and time will allow.
Scrutinizing details inconceivable to an ordinary person is the first job of a modelmaker. To create a lifelike model last year for “Absolut Citron,” which features a lemon slice with Absolut bottles for seeds, Borow sliced a real lemon and studied it for hours. Together with freelance modelmaker Chip McCloskey, Borow created the slice by first molding six of the slices in clay. They then cast the slice in clear resin two times, once for the front, and once for the back, so that when the slice was held up to the light, shadows of other shapes were visible through the back. Although the pulp of the lemon looks real, Borow was dissatisfied with the rind. “In a real lemon, the rind has little sacs ofjuice, and the pulp comes up around them,” he points out. “To make it really perfect, you would need to make tiny sacs of resin with pulp poured around it.” Borow says economy sometimes forces perfection to take a back seat. “When it’s finally shot, you’re not going to see everything anyway, but for my own satisfaction, I would love to bring it all the way through.”
Being a perfectionist is a given in the world of modelmaking. Even more important is the ability to conceptualize in three dimensions. Jerry McConnell, an illustrator who employed Borow fresh out of the Rhode Island School of Design in 1979, recalls seeing this trait in his early work. “He was able to think in three dimensions, more like a sculptor,” recalls McConnell. Four years after hiring Borow as a freelance assistant to work on editorial and advertising model- and setbuilding, McConnell turned his interests to publishing. When he began Madison Square Press in 1983, he asked Borow to become a partner and run the modelmaking business. “It was initiation by fire,” recalls Borow. “I spent a lot of time being nervous.”
After running the business from a tiny studio in McConnell’s building on 23rd Street for six years, Borow moved the business to a 3000- sq.-ft. space in a red-brick building on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy and hired his brother, Stephen, as studio manager and rep. Although the workspace is expansive, fluorescent-lit, and covered in sawdust, the rhythmic sounds of sanding and sawing, combined with the scent of cinnamon wafting from a neighboring muffin bakery, lend it a cheerful ambiance. In the studio’s pink kitchen, remnants of past jobs—a giant globe, empty liquor bottles, an Egyptian mummy— remind one of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” Since designing “Absolut Original,” an archeological find, and “Absolut L.A.” in the early ‘80s, Borow’s company has created models and sets for scores of other advertisers, from oversized serum bottles for pharmaceutical ads to a 20’ “Bud Bowl” stadium set. In the last six months, they have replicated a 1950s drive-in for Panasonic, a dog in a space suit for Defend pet insecticide, and an airplane seat made of clouds for British Airways. McConnell & Borow (known also as PropArt) works regularly for a core group of photographers, primarily Steve Bronstein, but also Cosimo, Dennis Chalkin, and Jeff Morgan.
With years of experience behind them and a growing bag of tricks, M&B and photographers are equally trying to “up the ante” with the level of sophistication in the work they do. “In the early days when we were working a lot with Cosimo, we were always working with very dramatic lighting, trying to make it look like dusk or dawn, trying to put in as much atmosphere as possible,” recalls Borow. “We were always worried about middle-of-the-day bright and sunny clear shots; we were afraid they were going to look like miniatures. As we go on, the biggest challenge is to push that to make it look as bright and clear as possible and still make it look convincing. It’s nice because we’ve done some where it really works, so I’m not worried about relying on the drama anymore.
Two recent examples he points to are “Absolut Atlanta,” featuring an overhead shot of Atlanta airport in daylight, and “Absolut Louisville,” a daytime shot of Churchill Downs at the Kentucky Derby, which was photographed by Bronstein and broke in 1993. The piece is cited by many involved as one of the most realistic to date. Borow finds little to criticize about it. “The detail is amazing,” he says. “The residential neighborhoods are the best we’ve done; there are very few things that will give away the fact that it’s a miniature set. The textures are right, the scale of everything is right.” Achieving the correct perspective, however, was initially a problem. When the agency presented the concept, they handed over stock photos of Churchill Downs without including an aerial shot. In order to estimate the overhead view of the stadium, Mark Varvoutis, who headed the project, spent days poring over a book from Churchill Downs, several stock shots, and maps of Louisville. After two days, someone at the agency finally uncovered a slide—of an aerial shot of the stadium. Borow and Varvoutis were pleased to see that their estimates were surprisingly accurate. The 12’- by-12’ set was built in five pieces, which would be reassembled at the photographer’s studio. The set marks the first time the studio had to use its new vacuuforming machine, which formed a mold for the cars in the parking lots and houses in surrounding residential neighborhoods. Then the candy sprinkles were added for the crowd, and the set was painted and details added, a painstaking process that took several weeks.
While working with new elements such as daylight and people pose new challenges to M&B’s artists, plant life has always exasperated everyone, from the agency on down. Arnie Arlow is skeptical that organic things can be replicated realistically. “Modelmaking works beautifully with inanimate objects,” he says. “It works poorly with people, plants, and nature.” Using his background in landscape architecture, Varvoutis constantly searches for better materials for trees and shrubbery in miniature sets. “Plants are difficult because they have a translucency to them,” he says. “There’s a depth that’s kind of like looking into marble.” While Varvoutis used to substitute feathers for trees, he now creates images on the Macintosh and sends them to a California company that laser-etches them in brass.
No matter how fast modelmakers work to improve the quality and detail of their stock in trade, Absolut’s creative teams are one step ahead, dreaming the impossible dream, whether it’s bottle-shaped raindrops in Seattle or a bottle-shaped formation of Tour de France bicyclists. “By working with us, they can be more imaginative with their ideas,” says Varvoutis. Arnie Arlow is more blunt: “We now know we can do anything.” That is, as long as Seagram’s is buying. The thought of discontinuing the work makes Borow wistful: “I know someday it’s going to run its course,” he says, “but I’m not sure there are many campaigns out there which are so made for me as this one.”
Joyce Rutter Kaye is managing editor of U&lc, the publication of International Typeface Corp. She writes frequently on advertising design.
- Print, America's Graphic Design Magazine