The Publicity Image: Zach Galifianakis and Absolut

Zach Galifianakis

Zach Galifianakis recently made a commercial for Absolut Vodka (featuring the comedic duo “Tim and Eric“). Apparently, Galifianakis was given complete control in the making of this commercial. How are we supposed to react to this video? What is this publicity image saying to us? What creeps in below the radar and why is this such an uncomfortably funny video?

In his book “Ways of Seeing,” John Berger analyzes ‘the publicity image’ in contemporary culture and through the lens of oil paintings. Today, I will try to see the Zach Galifianakis Absolut ad in a different way, paying special attention to it and try to flesh it out a little bit.

First, the visual aesthetic of the commercial is important as this is a highly stylized piece. That is, the first thing we notice is that we are somehow not in the ‘real’ world. What I mean is that, it seems that the commercial takes place in some kind of margin of reality, a zone located somewhere between our common everyday experience and an obscene dream-space where anything can happen. Perhaps, the semblance of reality is just that, a semblance, perhaps we have truly entered into Galifianakis’s fantasy space: the strange wigs blurring the genders of the characters, the white robes, symbolizing purity, comfort and affluence or the modern suburban sterility of the room and talk of the hot-tub seem to transport us to a kind of “soap-opera” realm of intrigue.

And, what role does Absolut play in all of this? Well, it seems that Absolut is portrayed as being an elixir from the Gods, a substance both sublime and terrifying. I like how Galifianakis and crew savor the vodka, smelling its aroma, stirring it, sipping it and fully embracing it as a holy fetishistic object. The whole idea of “Absolut on ice,” simply being enjoyed by itself is unsettling. Moreover, despite the bizarre nature of their conversations, when the Absolut begins flowing, everything is momentarily restored to a deceptive serenity (until Zach’s agressivity is unleashed). What this is saying is twofold, perhaps threefold: First, there is Asolut as decadent fetish object (the smelling, excessive savoring), then there is Absolut as monster (Galifianakis snapping violently about the temperature of the hot tub), third, Absolut as peace-bringer (if only you drink Absolut, harmony will temporarily be restored to your life…a terrifying serenity).

Berger, in his book writes: “Publicity persuades us of such a transformation by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour (Berger 131).” The transformation that he speaks of is the way we will come to see ourself after buying the new product, after giving in to the publicity image. However, it is very difficult to read the Zach Galifianakis Absolut commercial in terms of envy. We can easily see the glamour image as represented in the decor of the room, the robes, the hairstyles and the music, but there is something absolutely evil underlying this publicity image, which is what I really admire about this commercial. That is, Galifiankis does give us a taste of the transformation, but the transformation is so disconnected from our everyday reality that it is terrifying and uncomfortable. Do we envy Galifiankis’s character? Does the spectator-viewer wish to transform his or her life into this kind of maddening phantasmatic nightmare? I would even go further and ask, are we supposed to think that these are human beings? Are they not portrayed as some kind of perverse angels (spirits) existing in a horrifying zone of fantasy?

However, I think many of us when watching this can easily relate to it on some level. That is, although a bit unsettling and funny, when we hear the empty conversation, the, as Lacan may say “lure” of converation, we understand what is going on. For Lacan, the “lure” is the intentional deceptive conversational game that we play in our everyday life. It is talking about hot tubs when we really want to say something else. What is really being talked about in these empty conversations? In this commercial, I see an underlying aggressivity and unpredictability exuding from these characters: the outburst of anger, the excessive laughter, the opening conversation scene in all its deceptive banality…But, again, Absolut is seen as the elixir, the horrific and calming savior in this vague world of deception.

I admire Galifianakis for making this “commercial,” and it is great to see him able to exercise his genius. Now, where is my absolut on ice?

The Absolut Video by Zach Galifianakis can be seen here: ABSOLUT ZACH