For reasons of epistemology and snow-shoveling fatigue, I caught the second half of the AFC championship game Sunday afternoon. You know, just to catch my breath and to see if there is a God. Apparently there is. The Patriots lost. Belichick must be suicidal, but I’m sure he’ll cheat death.
Shortly after I tuned in, up pops a commercial. Now, as you probably know, I’ve been out of the ad-criticism racket for some time now, on the grounds of “who cares?” But sometimes I’m like the old, retired firehouse Dalmatian. The bell sounds and off I limp! Which is how I saw the iconoclast spot.
You know the trope. Some people aren’t like other people. They are creative and independent. They follow an unseen muse, march to a different drummer, refuse to follow the herd and sometimes dance inappropriately. Such free spirits and/or rugged individualists have been invoked for many decades in support of liquor, beer, cigarettes, blue jeans, aftershave, computers, phones, rental cars and you name it -- usually by also-ran brands who can’t say “100 million Americans can’t be wrong.”
This commercial was for cars. A young man and a young woman, renegades both, were the heroes. Never mind the action, which centered on their charming idiosyncracies. For instance, she wears a necklace from which dangles a thunderbolt, as your archetypal manic pixie dream girl is wont to do
“Why fit in,” the voiceover inquires, “when you were born to stand out?”
Yeah, that’s usually the question. Just know that the advertiser was a car. And which car sets you apart from the crowd? The Cadillac ELR? The Infiniti Q60? The Fiat 500L? Scion IQ? Dodge Viper SRT?
No, the Nissan Altima.
Hahahahahahahahaha! Hahahahahaha. Hahahahahaha. Yeah, an Altima. How dangerously subversive. The Official Car of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Now, I mention that not because it was the dumbest thing I saw in my hour of viewing. It was the second dumbest -- by quite a margin. The first, a mini-campaign that broke in the fall but apparently is being ramped up for the Super Bowl, was the relaunch of Pepsi’s “The Joy of Cola.”
Oh, that’ll go well. The whole world is targeting soft drinks for their lopsided contribution to the obesity epidemic, so it all makes so much sense. 1) Talk about how soda pop offers exultation verging on rapture 2) which is a preposterous lie 3) that didn’t work the first time they trotted it out 16 years ago.
The slogan, of course, dates to 1999 and yielded some cheerful ads -- remember Halle Eisenberg and Vincent (Big Pussy) Pastore in the malt shop? -- and a catchy jingle, but no ground in the cola wars. It lingered for a few years, with PepsiCo spending good money after bad on Britney Spears and Aretha before finally surrendering. Even then, forces were taking hold -- some competitive, some societal -- that militated against overstatement.
Not that Big Soda noticed. In 2009, Coca-Cola trotted out Open Happiness, another idiotic lie, and has stuck with it through thick and thin. Or, anyway, thin. Despite the happy talk, despite the lip service to “healthy lifestyles,” despite the stubborn corporate denial, the cola business worldwide is in the shitter. With no relief in sight, certainly not as long as the sugar peddlers continue to base their strategy on higher per capita consumption.
It isn’t illegal to pretend that a soft drink confers happiness or joy; puffery is deemed fair game by regulators. But at this time in public-health history, it is plainly idiotic. Especially when the truth would work better.
The truth. Remember that? It used to be a thing.
The reason Big Soda isn’t regulated is that what it sells is a confection which, when reasonably consumed, is tasty, refreshing and often positively delightful. It is, as someone once said, the pause that refreshes. Why in God’s name (and since New England lost I do not fear invoking it) don't these alleged marketing geniuses just say so???
When you say “Open Happiness,” the world is thinking “Open Diabetes.” When you say “The Joy of Pepsi,” the world is thinking “The Junk of Pepsi.” Unless you’re biding your time waiting for new markets -- Neonatal Intensive Care units, North Korea, Mars -- you’re going to have to remind people why you aren’t Satan. Not lying through your teeth would be a really solid place to start.
Excuse me…what is the matter with “Delightful?” What is the matter with “Open Nice?”