Classic Ad Review: Max Headroom shills for New Coke

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In 1985, the Coca-Cola Co. was watching young drinkers gravitate toward Pepsi's sweeter taste and cooler ads. So Coke concocted its own sweeter cola, blind-tested it against the competition and launched New Coke. The rest is marketing-disaster history.

But the company soon reintroduced old Coke as Coke Classic and kept New Coke on shelves, calling the move its "two-Coke strategy." It was such big news that ABC anchor Peter Jennings interrupted "General Hospital" to announce it.

Emerging amid the confusion: a hipper, MTV-ish message for Coke's new flavor in work created by McCann-Erickson. Let's call it the New Wave for New Coke. It starred a TV character, Max Headroom, who had a waxy head sporting platinum hair and who sometimes wore Wayfarers. Speaking from inside a grainy monitor, video breaking up and stuttering, the fictional, faux-CGI/faux-AI talk show host with a satirically smarmy demeanor urged people to "Ca-ca-catch the wave. Coke."

The construct was prescient. Computer generation was in its infancy and while Headroom was an analog fraud played by comic Matt Frewer, Big Brother-type TV screens were on people's minds (hello, "1984"). Plus, Headroom deconstructed celebrity worship, interruptive advertising and even the subject of privacy as he seemed to appear out of nowhere.

Certainly, Coke wasn't intending to go that McLuhan-ish, and perhaps saw Headroom simply as a way to click with a younger demo. In an early spot, he interviews/interrogates a sweaty Pepsi can, throws shade ("I heard you were big-time in the old pop biz") and says he's a "Coke-ologist."

The campaign proved much more popular than the drink, which was eventually discontinued in 2002. And it proved this at least: Even good advertising can't sell a bad product.

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