Diet Coke's approach quickly wears thin

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Advertiser: Coca-Cola Co. Agency: Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York Ad Review rating: 2 stars This just in: Men are pigs.

Despite 30 years of feminist enlightenment, guys still stand on street corners ogling passing women without having any concern for their minds, hearts or positions on Nafta. And women, for their part, have not stopped spiffing themselves up to accommodate us.

This state of affairs is brought home in three amusing but troubling new spots from Lowe & Partners/SMS, New York, which remind women how important Diet Coke is in the relentless pursuit of svelteness, men's attention and self-esteem.

In one, two guys are vulgarly comparing notes on passing babes--the joke being that this is in the frozen north and everybody's bundled up like a hay bale. But the guys drool over the ones drinking Diet Cokes through their scarves. Another, spoofing "Snow White," has Mirror Mirror breaking the bad news to the vain bitch queen about how fair she isn't. And a third takes us to an Italian village where all the women are stunning. A gorgeous little girl asks her old aunt, "If I drink Diet Coke, will I be beautiful, too?"

The aunt assures her not to worry: "I never had a Diet Coke, and look at me." The kid does, strangely, because auntie is a flabby, homely wreck. The tagline: "You are what you drink."

Oh? Such an unabashed equation of slender beauty with human worth--how oddly incorrect. Or is it just refreshingly candid?

Consider, for instance, last year's spots for Levi's and Lee jeans, which defied political correctness to acknowledge--in warm, funny and very human ways--that the attraction of one person to another often is based not on character and inner qualities so much as how nice the other person's butt is.

This may be discouraging evidence of our corruption by sexist, pop culture imagery that worships artificial constructs of beauty at the expense of the human spirit, but the glandular life is real life.

Nobody ever did a double take at a passing saint and said, "Oooh, check out that soul!"

So why shouldn't Diet Coke acknowledge that after the feminist doctrine is said and done we're still superficial and vain? Why shouldn't a diet beverage remind us why we diet to begin with?

Let's face reality here: It's never been just for the taste of it. Diet Coke has always been just for the waist of it. Clearly someone has decided there's no use engaging in puffery when there's such a wonderful opportunity to prey on women's vanity, insecurity and body obsession.

And there's the rub. It's one thing to acknowledge our frailties, to shrug and sheepishly accept--even, like Levi's and Lee, delight in the comic universality of--our woeful superficiality. But to perpetuate the behavior is another matter altogether.

In the end, for all their tongue-in-cheek exaggeration, these spots don't lampoon the cult of beauty. They validate it: You are what you drink. Diet Coke keeps you skinny. Ergo, if you don't drink Diet Coke, and you are not skinny, you are not much at all.

It's as if Lowe had calculated that being broad and obvious, winking at the manifest sexism of the message, somehow mitigates the offense. But it doesn't. While there must be a way to honestly, playfully approach this subject, it isn't this way. For all its jokiness, the campaign is offensive anyway--because, as it happens, you aren't what you drink. You are what you think.

And what they wish you to think is very hard to swallow.

Copyright May 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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