Code Red's ads present a new, riveting take on reality

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Don't even say "reality TV" to me.

If you're talking about "Big Brother" or "Survivor" or Fox's "Temptation Island," well-at the risk of sounding elitist-that's all TCFM (Total Crap for Morons). Then there's "Jackass," which is TCFJ.

If perhaps you're talking about real reality, the pitiful truth is we are so immersed in true-to-life gothic horror that, given the option, a little old-fashioned escapism at the moment seems like a much better idea. So let's just say that Mountain Dew Code Red's concept of a "reality" television commercial isn't, on the face of it, all that enticing.

But surprises are everywhere these days, aren't they?

Based on the guerilla-marketing we've seen to date (product placements on hip-hop stations, for example), let's presume PepsiCo's strategy for this product is to develop a core market in the inner city and from there expand outwards. From Fila and Timberland to "phat" and "chill," such a path from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Main Street has led to one mainstream trend after another.

So far, so good for Code Red; word-of-mouth has already taken hold. But the larger strategy requires something of a phenomenon, and phenomena are born, not made. Selling to young black males isn't so easy in the first instance. In fact, the challenge of finding the right tone and the right idiom has led to some of advertising's basest, clumsiest and most unsavory appeals, most especially a misogynist sexual worldview. Advertisers as varied as Colt 45 malt liquor and Lugz shoes have approached the market as if it were a collection of throbbing glands and nothing more.

The other default solution, of course, has been basketball, a cliche of such surpassing enormity that it's a wonder urban youth haven't run screaming to bocce. Not that the basketball theme is somehow racist-it isn't; it's a bona fide common denominator-but it does bespeak a certain desperate cluelessness among both "minority" agencies and the white-guy shops dominating the industry. The beauty of "Whassup?," for example, wasn't that it crossed cultural boundaries in spite of its all-black cast. The beauty of "Whassup?" was its focus on nothing more culturally particular than the joy of male friendship, and Budweiser's minor role therein.

So comes now this brand extension of Mountain Dew, the caffeine-spiked Code Red, and-lo and behold-the scene is an inner-city playground where large numbers of Target-Audience Americans are shooting hoops and spectating. Oh, that's novel.

But wait. Surprise No. 1 is that, beyond the basic subject matter, there is nothing about this commercial that resembles any past contrivance. This is roundball verite.

Not fake verite. Veritable verite, shot with 10 hidden cameras to capture complete civilians reacting to an extremely clever situation cooked up by BBDO. Surprise No. 2 is that, even in the midst of more outside-world reality than any of us ever bargained for, this is a slice of real life you can't take your eyes off of. Because it's so unexpected, so charming and so cool.

The precise situation was to let NBA stars Tracy McGrady and Chris Webber infiltrate the pick-up game without revealing themselves as the deities they clearly are. Soon enough, though, the crowd realizes they are witnessing something special, oohing and ahhing to every move. Arcing baseline jumpers, swish, nothing but net. Gigantic stuffs. Preposterous ball-handling skills. At one point, McGrady begins from half court, every dribble between his legs. He then dekes inside, tosses the ball high off the backboard and rebounds it himself in the paint for a thunderous dunk. The crowd goes nuts.

One guy is using his cell phone to give a play-by-play for a friend: "Sean brings up. He passes to someone who really don't got game..." And that's the only dialogue. Everything in this spot is natural sound, until the voiced-over tag: "Discover a rush as real as the street. Mountain Dew Code Red."

Or, if you want, you can call it MDCR. Phenomena are born, not made. But these are surprising times, and we may be witnessing a real-life ETTR. (Exception to the Rule.)

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