Commentary

Coca-Cola's Anti-Bullying Salvo Beats The Alternative, I Guess

I have a complicated relationship with soda. On one hand, I’m cognizant that it rots my teeth and innards, and lacks the nutritional attributes of, say, tsunami runoff. On the other, it’s so darn tasty. I permit myself one 20-ounce Dr Pepper a week, which, per Daniel Boulud, I usually pair with a cream-cheese-loaded salt bagel. This ranks among life’s greatest joys, right up there with naps and commercial-free rock blocks. Oh, and family. Definitely family.

So I’m the rare individual who stands boldly in the middle, neither a placard-waving member of the anti-fizzy-beverage brigade nor a get-your-hands-out-of-my-refrigerator-and-pantry-Obama! adherent of small gub’mint. As it turns out, I’m largely irrelevant to the debate, because my soda-inhaling days are behind me. Even if they weren’t, soda is basically perceived as diabetes juice nowadays; if you serve soda to your wards, you rank among history’s greatest monsters and should be required to pay the health-insurance deductibles for every person in your zip code.

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As I understand it, many schools no longer permit the sale of soda in cafeterias or vending machines. Is that right? If so, Coca-Cola’s new brand video, in which it partners with DoSomething.org for an anti-bullying hackathon of some sort, makes a bit more sense. In lieu of actually being able to lure young-n-thirsties with the omnipresence of the product itself - as Coca-Cola and its ilk did when I was a kid, back when soda only cost 50 cents! and there were eight channels on the television! which was square! and our seatbelts didn’t come with any fancy shoulder harnesses! - these entities might as well attempt to do some good. Hence the superlatively overnamed “Coca-Cola & DoSomething.org #MakeItHappy Happiness Hackathon” video, which debuted earlier this week.

In it, Coca-Cola and DoSomething.org host an anti-bullying summit, flying 15 teens to New York and empowering the living bleeping crap out of them. Oh man, do they ever. These kids speak their minds freely, sharing stories about the savagery - honestly, that’s not too strong a word for it - of their fellow teens and resolving to “crowd out those negative voices.” DoSomething.org mentors chime in with impossible-to-disprove hypotheses like “you can use technology for good, you can use technology for bad,” while a Coca-Cola exec adds something or other about happiness and optimism.

The video doesn’t make it clear what kind of hack the participants ultimately created - it has something to do with QR codes that, when scanned, generate a positive-message greeting card to send to somebody who needs it. (QR codes - HUGE among today’s teens, clearly). Too, it feels a little pandering; the intended audience clearly doesn’t need a bunch of statistics to confirm that cyberbullying is a very real problem. At the same time, who’s going to object to a campaign that attempts to increase the number of positive messages conveyed online - as opposed to, say, “your last column betrays a pitiful amount of knowledge about the history of the Chicago Cubs”? Words can be so hurtful.

Even as Coca-Cola’s effort itself is unlikely to spur real change (as far as problems go, cyberbullying is multiple magnitudes bigger than anything a brand can hope to solve) or do much to burnish the company’s brand among young would-be soda drinkers, at least it’s well-intentioned. Also, “Coke = happy yays!,” or whatever the brand tagphrase happens to be nowadays, trumps what the competition is doing. That would be Pepsi, whose marketing minions were last seen wandering around an abandoned mall in a daze, muttering to themselves “music and now-ness and now-itude and nice-looking people and oh lord how am I gonna feed my kids?”

So sure, I give a moderately half-enthusiastic thumbs-up to “#MakeItHappy Happiness Hackathon” and the earnestness with which it attempts to inject some decency into online interaction. “It beats the alternative” generally doesn’t qualify as meaningful praise, but it does here. I wish Coca-Cola and Pepsi and every other soda marketer the best of luck in the future. They’re gonna need it.

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