No one really needs to drink a cola, Coke, Pepsi, RC, or other. Coca-Cola does not solve any particular problem or address any particular need. So, the sell job is necessarily vague: Coke is “the pause that refreshes,” it’s “the real thing,” or Coke is simply “it.” For years and years, the company’s marketing has associated the soft drink with a general, undefined, good feeling. It tastes good, it makes you feel good, it’s just good. (Coke started out as a patent medicine, after all.) All of which makes Coca-Cola’s current campaign so surprising. In a series of ads produced by the firm Cliff Freeman & Partners (“Where’s the Beef?” Little Caesars, etc.), Coke pokes fun at the idea of taking Coke seriously. The version that I’ve seen most frequently can be viewed here at the Web site AdCritic.com (QuickTime plug-in required). It involves two girls graduating from high school.
The ad: It’s graduation day. Two friends–the blond one and the one with glasses–embrace. “We made it!” squeals one. Contemplating how much they will miss each other, they lock pinkies. “Best friends forever,” they vow simultaneously. Glasses suggests that it’s time to share a Coke. There is a pause. Blondie admits that she didn’t bring any Coke. There is another pause, a fateful one, and you can hear the tearing of the social order. “I never liked you,” says Glasses. “Because I’m prettier than you?” Soon they are barking insults, and Glasses is left to crawl on the ground in search of the spectacles the Blondie has wrenched from her face. Heh, heh, heh. And fade to “Next time, enjoy” superimposed over the refreshing bottle of Coke that could have averted this tragedy.
I’ve also seen a similar spot (which I wasn’t able to find online) involving a 101-year-old woman who busts up her birthday party when it becomes clear that her thoughtless kin have brought no Coke. In an other variation, which I heard on the radio the other day, a mother and daughter are bonding on the occasion of the latter’s wedding when, again, the absence of Coke provokes; soon Mom is telling her little girl that she’s fat, reducing her to tears. Ha!
What it’s trying to say: Coca-Cola is nothing less than the sticky sweet bonding agent that holds a fragile civil society together; remove Coke from the equation, and things fall apart. OK, not really. The ads are using the well-worn tactic of making a point by hilariously overstating it: Of course you wouldn’t attack your best friend over it, but things go better with Coke.
What it’s actually saying: Two curious messages come through. First: Isn’t Coke sort of suggesting that anyone who really, really likes Coke doesn’t have their life in perspective? In fact, don’t these ads suggest that if you love Coke, you’re probably kind of a jerk.
The second–and stronger–message is that Coke, after all, is a trivial thing when you think about it. The absurdity–and thus the humor–of each ad scenario is grounded in this idea. The whole campaign’s spirit is a knowing rejoinder to the foolish self-importance of a company that once unironically placed its product in the middle of an idealized vision of world peace. (If you’d to pause for a refresher glance at the old teach-the-world-to-sing ad, AdCritic has it here.) In fact, the more trivial you find Coca-Cola to be, the funnier the ads.
The grade: Actually, did I mention that on top of everything else, the spots aren’t really all that in any case? Well, anyway, I’m giving them a D. With these ads it’s as though Coke were not only admitting that it’s not “The Real Thing” but also declaring, “It’s All Bullshit Anyway.” How’s that for a slogan?