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Could Coke's polar bears have become larger than life ad icons like the Jolly Green Giant, Charlie the Tuna, Tony the Tiger, the Marlboro man or Morris the cat?

After its disappointment with the "Can't beat the feeling" campaign in 1992 (its lowest ranking-ninth-on our annual list of top TV campaigns), Coca-Cola Co. abandoned not only the "feeling" but also its agency (McCann-Erickson Worldwide) and for that matter, the ad industry.

Its unusual union with Hollywood's Creative Artists Agency was accompanied by some equally unusual ad thinking. The traditional "one sight, one sound, one sell" was replaced by a targeted approach that appealed to each consumer segment in its own language, imagery and media. Thus began "Always Coca-Cola"-a campaign with more than 25 executions that went off in almost as many directions to appeal to everyone.

First-year results were remarkable (No. 3 ranking) and second-year results were even more so-top of the list in 1994 for the first time since "Max Headroom" in '86. But was it the diversity of executions that did it? Our data shows the polar bears executions contributed more to the rankings than all other executions combined, even when they were not being aired! Every time they came back on the air, they moved the Coke campaign ahead of Pepsi.

In 1995, the "Always" campaign languished behind Pepsi until the fourth quarter, when the bears were brought out of hibernation again. "Polar Bear Twins," left over from '94, went into rotation with the new seasonal extravaganza "Caravan." Despite a short run, the bears accounted for more than a third of what viewers remembered about Coke advertising in the fourth quarter-when the campaign surged ahead of Pepsi again. And although used so sparingly, the bears were the most retained element of "Always Coca-Cola" for the whole year. So is "Always Coca-Cola" to the viewers as diversified as it was designed to be? No, it's not.

Could the bears, with all their popularity, have become larger-than-life advertising icons? Probably not. It's not the 1960s, and there isn't a visionary like Leo Burnett around.

Mr. Vadehra is president of Video Storyboard Tests. Write him at 107 E. 31st St., New York, 10016. Fax him at (212) 689-0210. Campaign Clout reports consumer response to current advertising.

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