World's best-known product goes with generic campaign

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What is coke?

It's bubbly, brown sugar water with a little cola-nut extract, that's what it is.

Intrinsically, that's not much to commend it-except that bubbly, brown sugar water with cola-nut extract happens to be peculiarly sweet and refreshing, and preternaturally palatable with food. So it's tempting, and ubiquitous, and has been for our entire lifetimes.

Go figure; all those decades of treacly advertising were actually true. The stuff really is as familiar and reassuring as an old friend or relative-or, anyway, something that the label "soft drink" doesn't begin to describe. Perhaps you recall how apoplectic the world went 16 years ago when the Coca-Cola Co. unilaterally changed the Coke formula. May we humbly remind you that this never happened with, say, Tide. Or Texaco Havoline Supreme. Nor would it ever happen with most any product under the sun.

Such as Pepsi.

Because Coke has a unique emotional franchise worldwide. It is a brand that is far vaster than its essential self because of the simple, enduring character of its essential self.

Oh, and sales are terrible.

Faced with stagnant growth or worse in markets around the world, the Coca-Cola Co. has been flailing desperately to communicate its one-of-a-kind brand essence. After all sorts of experimentation-from broad parody to computer animation to soda-pop mysticism-management is doing precisely what it did after the New Coke debacle: going back to the old formula.

The new campaign from (the once exiled and now rehabilitated) Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide and Amster Yard, New York, returns to the scene of McCann's hundreds of crimes against reality: the intersection of Coke and The Good Life. How often did we see gorgeous people having the exciting, smiley times of their lives? The ads portrayed scenes of exaggerated warmth and fun and gave Coke an exaggerated prominence in them-approximately the role that ecstacy plays at a rave, only with less puking.

The ads' buoyant optimism was exceeded only by their obvious falsity-and therein the real crime. This was falsity obscuring the underlying, above-mentioned truth.

So now comes McCann and Amster Yard returning to the concept, but this time with understated, contemporary sensibilities.

A very, very good idea.

In concept, at least. None of the first three U.S. spots is awful, exactly, but none is especially strong. The listlessness resides in the narrative, or lack thereof. One vignette captures a bride's prenuptial preparations, one is about a group of teen-agers on their last night out before graduation and one shows Wallflowers frontman Jakob Dylan ducking backstage before a concert encore.

And that's it. Nothing actually happens.

Aristotle taught us that stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. These are just middles. In the teen-ager spot, one kid ruminates wistfully about his feelings on a stifling train car with friends, sucking on a Coke. The bride also takes a long sip from a bottle offered by the flower girl. And young Dylan is just catching a quick chug before going back on stage.

While the agencies were going for scenarios that didn't scream of contrivance, verisimilitude is one thing and lassitude is another. These are all about the mood of the moment, but the viewer requires more.

The new Diet Coke spots from Wieden & Kennedy, Portland, Ore., have a similar mechanism: The product is a prop in little slices of romantic life. But those spots work because the targeted female viewer is emotionally engaged in the narrative, and credits the brand for understanding her desires. For the Coke work to resonate, the stories have to strike some universal chord, some bit of humanity, some statement at least to be understated. Never mind a selling proposition; these spots have no proposition at all-not counting the shockingly generic slogan, "Life tastes good."

Hard to say whether consumers will respond to that, but the people at Quaker will be delighted. Life cereal does taste good, until it gets too soggy. ("Hey, Jakob! He likes it!")

The strategy of this campaign shines a klieg light on the error-no, monumental stupidity-a year ago of dumping the best tagline in the brand's remarkable history. The fact is, life doesn't all the time taste good. But Coke does.


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