Coke and Freeman take risk with ironic new ad approach

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Marketer: Coca-Cola
Agency: Cliff Freeman & Partners
Ad review rating: Two stars

This is one we were on the lookout for, the first Coke campaign from Cliff Freeman & Partners. Freeman--he of "Where's the beef?" and Staples and Little Caesars and Fox Sports--is pretty much synonymous with advertising humor. And Coca-Cola, well, it pretty much isn't synonymous with advertising humor.

A recent, hilarious Freeman ad had Turkish cliff divers plummeting into a dusty, earthen pit. An earlier one for Pep Boys showed a motorist urinating by the side of the road, just long enough for thieves to strip his car. How about the Little Caesars pizza-delivery training camp, and the shot of the trainee being lawn-sprinkled repeatedly in the groin?

That sort of joke doesn't seem to be, shall we say, very Cokelike. So we could hardly wait to witness the nexus of Freeman's creative vision and Coke's venerable advertising tradition. What would it be . . . maybe 100 singers of all ages, races and nationalities, crooning and swaying on a hilltop, attacked and mauled by a pack of angry wolves?

Nah, Freeman's used that gag already for

So here come four 30-second spots, two of them reduced from :60s, with a whole new theme: "Coke moments." The idea is to ponder what would happen if natural Coke moments arrived, and there was no Coke available. Such a premise can be played strictly for guffaws--for instance, Goodby Silverstein's classic "Got milk?" campaign--or it can be played dead straight. These spots at first seem to be taking the latter path, but you don't have to go far into any spot before realizing parody is afoot.

Of course it is. These are softly lit, lushly scored little vignettes calculated to make you well up with emotion. They are brimming over with a Hallmark Cards, Kodak, Campbell Soup brand of sentimentality--obviously a genre that Freeman never engages in.

One spot is set at a high school commencement, where best girlfriends must part.

Another is about the young soldier returning to the prairie on his first leave. A third is about a 101-year-old woman at her (probably last) family reunion. And the fourth gives us a little Asian exchange student, shy and withdrawn, meeting her surrogate family at the train station.

As the unbearably maudlin scenarios play out, you keep waiting for someone to fire a gerbil from a cannon. And, sure enough, someone does. At the news there is no Coke to toast with in parting, the high school best friends wind up in a bitch fight. When she asks for a Coke and doesn't get one, the 101-year-old great grandma wigs out and starts knocking things over with her electric wheelchair. The returning soldier just grabs his duffle and leaves. And the little exchange student stalks off, muttering nastily in her native language.

The old-lady and graduation spots are pretty terrible. The acting is unconvincing--too over the top--and 30 seconds is insufficient to sucker the viewer into suspending disbelief. So, amazingly enough considering the source, they simply aren't funny.

The performances are better in the homecoming and exchange-student commercials, but only the :60s are truly effective. The :30s are still too short to set up the joke. (See Garfield's Rule #8: There are no :60s if the media buy only pays for :30s. So unless Coke is willing to pony up, the parodic irony never gets much of a chance to develop.)

That, however, begs the larger question of whether Coca-Cola should be in the irony business at all.

As much as Ad Review cherishes irreverence, self-deprecation and misdirection, we fully understand there is a sizable part of the cola-

swilling population that doesn't get anything.

Furthermore, as the Coca-Cola Co. once learned the hard way, Americans feel quite proprietary about their Coke. They might not like their soda-related emotions, or even cinematic cliches, toyed with by smart alecks.

That isn't to say Freeman isn't the man for this job.

He may well be. He just needs to reload the cannons and start over.

Copyright August 2000, Crain Communications Inc.

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