Why Absolut made a documentary about more inclusive drag shows

Next Thursday night in Toronto, a new documentary called Underneath the Empire will be screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox—the home of cinema in Canada.

The star of the documentary is Scarlett Bobo, and it tells her story about creating a new, more inclusive kind of drag show called Empire’s Ball.

“I started Empire’s Ball because there has been so many competitions in the city and they all involved only drag queens—which is basically a man in a wig and a dress,” she explains in the trailer (below).

“I wanted to start something that included everybody, every aspect of drag, every aspect of performance.”

The documentary, and Scarlett Bobo herself, are at the heart of a grassroots-led campaign from Absolut Vodka. Called “Changemakers,” the campaign features four people working hard to change the world for the good—to be more inclusive, fair and sustainable.

Absolut has a long history of supporting LGBTQ+ and minority communities, the arts and sustainability, said Dan Flecker, senior brand manager for Absolut Vodka, Kahlua and Malibu at Corby, which represents Absolut in Canada. But a lot of brands have started talking about themselves in the “hashtag woke” space, he said.

For Absolut, it was time to go further and do more—to connect with a new generation of consumers by taking meaningful and tangible action to support those pushing for inclusivity and diversity, and helping the environment.

“We were kind of done with talking about our legacy and how great we had been. I wanted to start acting on it,” said Flecker. “That was the crux of it. It was just ‘What kind of cool shit can we start to do to support communities and genuinely give back?'”

Along with Scarlett Bobo, the “Changemakers” are Randell Adjei, a community activist, author and artist in Toronto who wants to inspire more people through his art, and the Hollinsworth sisters, Hailey and Bree, who started the sustainable fashion line Ungalli.

With Ungalli, Absolut wanted to produce a line of sustainable clothing. “And then we decided ‘Let’s recycle a lot of the old iconic ads that Absolut has,’ so we created a collection which we called the Aboslut Comback X Ungalli collection” (which quickly sold out).

Adjei, meanwhile, created a spoken word piece about the change he wanted to see in the world. A video was shot around that poem with the Changemakers and friends. “We are agents of change” stands as the anthemic rallying cry for the campaign, with smaller shorter videos cut and pushed out through digital and social.

Working with WPP’s SJR for creative and Havas for media, the campaign appeared in market in late October with simple, high-impact out-of-home: striking photography with inspirational quotes from Adjeis piece.

“What excites me about this campaign is that Absolut has always strived to be an agent of change as a brand and now we’ve taken it a step further to help facilitate creating positive change for our general consumers,” said Lina Kim, VP, group account director, for Havas Media Canada. “Taking a localized approach was key (i.e. the selection of local Changemakers and community groups), to create an emotional and authentic message that would resonate strongly with Canadians,” she said.

The intent was to be grassroots, authentic, genuine, even quiet, said Flecker.

“We wanted the brand to take a bit more of a backseat, and let the people talk—let the people shine through.” The brand is always present, but primarily through its iconic bottle silhouette and neon lighting. The message is not about the vodka, but about Absolut shining a light on these Changemakers. To further ensure all of the content is truly authentic, each piece of the campaign—from the documentary, to the trailer and videos and every outdoor execution—was reviewed and approved by the featured individuals, said Flecker.

“We wanted to make sure they feel included, that they feel that it is accurately representing them. Because there are so many sensitivities that we might not intuitively pick up, and as soon as they explain it you go yeah that makes sense.”

In the last few days, through a partnership with Vice, Absolut launched Absolut iD, a new fundraising component tied to each of the Changemakers. For every view of either the trailer for Underneath the Empire or “We are the agents of change,” Absolut will donate $1 to a charity chosen by each of the Changemakers (up to $10,000 per charity). Scarlett Bobo chose Rainbow Railroad, Adjei chose Manifesto, and the Hollinsworth sisters chose the David Suzuki foundation.

The campaign will run until Dec. 23, and then Absolut will look at how well it performed and where it can go next—who might be the next Changemakers that it can help. Regardless of what’s next, Flecker feels this was the right campaign for this moment in time.

“I think this is very much a global truth, but Canada feels more divisive than ever,” he said. “It can be deflating and quiet unnerving.

“But within that we know that there’s still those people out there that choose to really lead with love. They bravely champion for inclusivity, a sense of progress and very much looking towards the sustainable future.”

“We wanted to highlight these Changemakers… because you do see a lot of fear and hate and we wanted to rally against that. And  do it in an inspiring way, but most importantly a way that genuinely connects with a new generation of consumers.”

David Brown