COCA-COLA CLASSIC LOSES ITS FORMER EDGE

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Four years ago, discouraged by the flat, predictable, often sappy advertising that was emerging from its long partnership with McCann-Erickson Worldwide, Coca-Cola Co. went off in a bold, new direction.

Seeking a "new paradigm," Coke turned to Hollywood for fresh thinking, different viewpoints and liberation from the hidebound conventions that long gripped its consumer marketing.

It worked. The initial spots from Creative Artists Agency were wildly uneven in quality and tone, but together they represented a breathtaking departure from the woeful pap viewers had become accustomed to. And the second year's pool of spots was better still. Combined with McCann's swan-song con-tribution-the simple, sublime tag "Always Coca-Cola"-the campaign quickly transformed the brand's stodgy image. Since 1994, Coke Classic is up 21% worldwide.

But now comes a new pool of spots, and suddenly "Always" is sounding more like a threat than a promise. Oh, the slogan is still perfect, but the advertising is maddeningly pedestrian and seriously flawed nearly from beginning to end.

It's almost as if they shot a bunch of boards without thinking them through. The result is 16 spots filled with undeveloped notions, skimpy production and jokes that never quite materialize. The only exception is a clever, delightful :30 done by Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, that simply descends a motel sign stacked with neon messages: "No food. No TV. No pool. No air cond. ICE COLD COCA-COLA. No vacancy."

Everything else misses, albeit sometimes not until the last moment. One of the more promising concepts, for example, is a blackout focusing on three mannequins photographed through a department store window. In the reflected glass, we see all sorts of bizarre goings-on: buxom babes shimmying like showgirls, a clutch of media around a passing celebrity, a giant wedding cake dropped and squashed, a head-on car wreck, a man breathing fire. Still, no matter how provocative the action, the mannequins stand impassive and unmoved.

Then two kids walk by drinking Cokes, whereupon naturally the mannequins come to thirsty life. It has built deftly to this point, only to be ruined by the ridiculous (and, incidentally, mistimed) eyepopping, open-mouth reaction of the child actors.

Coke has said again and again how much money it now saves vs. Madison Avenue norms of production extravagance. But it's false economy. Sometimes the only thing to say is "Cut. Take 37."

This campaign is rife with such examples of sloppiness. Or is it indifference? Creative Artists has been recast as Edge, but, oh my, what a dull edge it is.

In "Skyline," a charming violin rendition of the Coke jingle is spoiled by a two-bit, digitally rendered contour-bottle-dotted Manhattan skyline. And a boring spot called "Ice Float" is made still worse by an equally cheesy digital Coke-bottle glacier.

A whimsical vignette about a Paris culinary school that uses Coke to saute with is supposed to be funny and surprising, but it is neither. Its style suggests parody, but a parody of what? There's no telling, and there's no laugh in a sous-chef who sneaks gulps of the secret ingredient.

Fresh? Bold? No. Just flat, predictable and sappy. Coke thinks it's living on the Edge. Not at all. What's happening is that the creative in Creative Artists has gone begging.

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