Garfield's Ad Review: Coke's new spots may be cute, but they're a far cry from iconic

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Today's lesson: understanding iconography.

Marilyn Monroe, in her rare projection of both intense sexuality and guileless innocence, transmogrified into a pop-culture icon. Andy Warhol, largely by understanding Monroe's image and toying with it his work, became an icon of the `60s himself. Both were celebrities whose personas ultimately transcended their actual work, but that could never have happened minus the intrinsic quality and substance that underpinned their celebrity.

Both were, in short, the real thing.

Not a difficult concept. So one wonders how can it have so utterly have eluded the original Real Thing.

Coca-Cola, perhaps the world's most iconic brand, has lost its way. The latest pool of Olympic-themed spots is just the most recent evidence that the company is at a loss to understand, in all its priceless dimensions, its own flagship brand. And if the company does understand the brand, it sure doesn't understand how to advertise it.

Scene: a Rocky Mountain highway and a solitary hitchhiker, waving a contour bottle of Coke at a passing 16-wheeler. The trucker-presumably sufficiently lured by $1.09 worth of cola to pick up a bearded loner-stops, loads the guy and asks where he's coming from. Moscow.

"You hitchhiked all the way from Russia?" the trucker asks, incredulously (and no wonder, as it's basically impossible).

"I start with 12-pack," is the broken-English reply. Cute spot from Carmichael Lynch, Minneapolis.

A second unlikely vignette, from McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, centers on a gorgeous French figure skater who, following her performance in front of an audience filled with admiring young-adult suitors, is offered a Coke by a dweeby adolescent. In return she offers "mon coeur," her heart, and romance beckons. The kid is great as he asks nobody in particular, "Did she just ask me out?" Very cute.

Then, to round out the Olympics lineup, polar bears redux. Two spots, one with computer-animated bears frolicking on a snowy mountainside, another on ice floes. Ursine, simply ursine.

Here's how we suppose they came to air: Agencies came up with some concepts. After weeks or months of lobbying, they got permission to shoot a handful of them. Then the spots got tested, tested, tested until, eventually, some of them materialized as actual commercials on actual television. Some because they're cute, some because they're very cute. Some because they are just so, so cute!

None of which has much to offer about Coca-Cola. Nothing about its taste. Nothing about its uniquely uncloying sweetness. Nothing about its refreshment. Nothing about its lift. Nothing about its ubiquity. Nothing about how good it is for washing down a burger.

Deep within their Atlanta bunker, Coca-Cola executives seem to understand they have an icon. So they're selling the icon-adorably-having entirely lost track of what made the icon iconic. Where in the world is the advertising about Coca-Cola's intrinsic qualities?

They can't even settle on a theme line. Is it "Life Tastes Good?" Those words don't appear here. Is it "All the World Loves a Coke?" That clumsy phrase appears in two of the spots. Or is it nothing? The polar bear commercials, also from McCann, have no tagline.

And not one of the spots has a thing to say, which, from this brand above all, icon hardly believe.

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