Vanilla Coke’s unlikable pitchman (click the still to see the ad) Simon Cowell is an asshole. That’s what he’s famous for: the needlessly brutal insults of the more hapless contestants on the fame-seeking spectacle American Idol. Even the series’ own site says that Cowell “became a celebrity in his own right for reducing a string of teenage wannabes to tears while serving as a judge on the UK version of the show.” What advertiser would want to enlist such a person?
Coca-Cola, for one. The soft-drink maker is an aggressive sponsor of American Idol, not just via plain old ad time but through paid product placement—it’s not a coincidence that Cowell and the other judges are constantly hoisting red Coke cups. And during the most recent episode of the series, Cowell took his celebrity status to the next level by appearing in an actual ad for Vanilla Coke (which you can see by clicking on the still to the left).
This new Coke flavor made its debut last year and was pushed in a couple of spots featuring actor Chazz Palminteri as a mysterious, mob-like figure who dispenses samples of the drink in an obliquely threatening manner (see the old ads here on Coke’s site). In the new ad, Cowell shows up alone at a dark and almost-empty restaurant. He is seated a table across from Palminteri, who, in full wiseguy mode, says that it would mean a lot to the Vanilla Coke brand if Cowell, “America’s most notorious critic,” liked the drink. Cowell tries it and starts to give his opinion, but Palminteri cuts him off. “Jimmy,” he barks to a henchman, “tell him his opinion.” The henchman holds up a cue card, which Cowell obediently reads. “We’ve got our first celebrity endorsement!” Palminteri says with a curt laugh, as Cowell’s eyes dart about the room. The last shot has Palminteri with his arm around Cowell, who nervously says, “It’s good.”
As it happens, the famously obnoxious Cowell was fairly tame throughout the installment of the show in which the ad debuted. He said that one contestant looked like she was doing a Burger King commercial and told another guy he “could lose a few pounds.” I don’t know whether viewers would admit it, but many of them must have found this disappointing, because Cowell’s put-downs are one of the show’s chief selling points.
Part of Cowell’s appeal is that, like a soap opera villain, he’s the type that people “love to hate.” The goofy American Idol host regularly takes potshots at him, and when the guy he told to lose weight challenged him to a pushups contest, the audience went wild. But the rest of his appeal is best understood in the context of insult humor, from Don Rickles to the Conan O’Brien puppet Triumph. Even when cruel, the insulter can be funny, but more to the point he often says what others are thinking. On American Idol, the other judges always seem to look for something positive to say—they’re full of BS, in other words. The result is that when Cowell says something nice, it actually means something. And perhaps on some level those tearful teenage wannabes got exactly what they deserved. Cowell, in other words, represents the asshole as truth-teller.
Obviously there’s a contradiction here: Cowell’s brutal honesty is attractive in a way, but you also want him to get his comeuppance. This is what the Vanilla Coke ad wrestles with in relying on an asshole pitchman. On the one hand, Cowell’s endorsement means something because of his nasty brand of integrity; on the other hand, it’s sort of satisfying to see him totally cowed. It seems strange for a massive marketer like Coke to force-feed us its latest variation with a campaign that is more or less about coercion, albeit jokey and cartoonish coercion. But seeing this ad, I think this strategy makes a certain kind of twisted sense. If even the mighty Cowell can be bullied into liking Vanilla Coke, maybe we should all just give up and buy some. How’s that for brutal honesty?