I was watching Rachel Maddow last night when the new-ish corporate commercial for Coke, called “Coming Together,” came on the screen. In fairness, I wanted to see how it played in the real world; I’d watched it earlier on You Tube, and it struck me as the short film equivalent of what the substitute teacher might show in 8th grade social studies (with help from the AV guy) if the class were misbehaving. Then I wondered if I actually was the one misbehaving, so this time I tried to sit up and pay attention.
The next thing I knew it was 40 minutes later.
I’m not kidding: two full minutes of super-calm droning of the kindliest, most reasonable female narrator in the universe, backed by the delightful tinkling of bells mixed with delicate strings, coupled with the sensory overload of seriously committee-tested, fair-and-balanced visuals knocked me right out.
If you could bottle the spot, you’d have Coke Ambien.
For starters, it’s trying way too hard to have it every which way, and trots out too much corporate blather and jibber-jabber. All that lawyer-approved disingenuousness shuts my circuits down.
Most people watching would find it interesting to know that Coca-Cola owns over 600 brands, including teas, waters, sports drinks, health drinks, and the sweetener Truvia. I love the design of the tiny cans, and the big graphic calorie counts on the front labels of the sugared drinks. All good information. But you can’t have it both ways. Exactly how deeply concerned is citizen Coca-Cola about "playing an important role" in addressing obesity, when clearly it is also using this very same message to lobby voraciously on behalf of high-fructose-syrupy, supersized drinks (which Mayor Bloomberg of New York City is threatening to kill) and against higher soda taxes?
This will take “continued effort from all of us,” says the announcer, evenly. But speak for yourself, lady. It’s a bit presumptuous to ask your customers to exert any effort in your direction.
The root causes of obesity are so complicated, with so many possible angles (never mind Coke’s role in that epidemic), that my very astute colleague Larry Dobrow also addressed the problem this week.
The announcer takes pains to point out “one common-sense fact”: that a calorie is a calorie, and they all count, no matter the source. But most nutritionists and scientists believe that the high-fructose corn syrup in soda sets off the body’s glycemic index in a different way than, say, broccoli does. (Not to mention the possible trouble with aspartame in the low- and no-calorie varieties.)
Speaking of broccoli, however, “Coming Together” is the sensible, cruciferous vegetable of Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity campaign portfolio. A second spot attempts to be far more entertaining and lighthearted, showing how you can burn off the “140 happy calories” in a 12-ounce, full-fructose can or bottle of Coke.
This is even more Orwellian. Using the Ingrid Michaelson song, “Be OK,” it shows that working your can off hardly means working your can off. It takes a mere “25 minutes of letting your dog be your GPS” (if you are an adorable, skinny, Zooey Deschanel type, wearing the perfect separates and laughing madly as your dog pulls you along the perfect metropolitan walkway.) Then it’s just “75 seconds of LOL” plus one victory dance at a bowling alley. If you’re like me, you sort of glaze over the 25 minutes of intense walking part, and think one round of a happy dance will knock them calories right out.
Let’s get to the real ugliness. No one wants to address it publicly, but this issue is also a class issue dictated by the cheapness of high-fructose corn syrup. The weird economics of corn syrup rears its head in the supermarket, where two-liter bottles often cost less than the 12-ouncers, and certainly cost less than the graphically adorable, portion-controlled, eight-ounce cans.
Thus, the 67.6-fluid-ounce version of Coca-Cola is the most reasonable choice for low-income communities. This doesn’t help in the ostensible message of drink less soda, as it is weighted against the working poor. (For more brain twisters, the New York chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. actually argued FOR Coca-Cola and the beverage industry at a hearing on banning supersized sugary drinks in State Supreme Court today in Manhattan, even though the obesity rate for African-Americans in NYC is higher than the city average. They said it would unfairly impact minority-owned small businesses.)
So the unintended consequences are crazy.
So what’s a disingenuous corporate citizen to do? Here’s my suggestion, based on the fact that last week, at the front desk of my apartment building, the doorman was standing guard over a case of Coke (in vintage eight-oz bottles!) The old kind, with the real sugar! Apparently, one of the tenants has it shipped to him by a relative from Mexico every month.
I had a Pavlovian reaction to it: My mouth watered when I saw it. And as the other tenants passed by, I could see that they were also eyeing the sauce like liquid crack.
So here’s your answer: Leave all the high-fructose corn syrup behind. Go back to pure sugar cane, and the (now-tiny) eight-ounce bottle. Sell it in liquor stores, or behind the counter at drugstores, like federally regulated extra-strength Claritin-D. Charge a ridiculous amount, like $5 a bottle. (That’s the equivalent of what it is in fancy hotels in Europe.)
It then becomes an apertif, a dessert, or candy. Call it Coke Suave. Then, instead of turning mind-deadening, disingenuous legal cartwheels in advertising, all you have to say about Coke is that it’s “Delicious and Refreshing.”
That’s the way the Real Thing was advertised in 1907, and it was a real sleeper.