Coca-Cola sponsored the recent Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and Granville Station - the city’s busiest public transit hub - bore advertisements for no one else. What struck me as interesting was the two divergent levels their ads play to, simultaneously.
First of all, there’s the pure, mainstream appeal of Coca-Cola underlying everything. Their website features a racing total to count how many people have had “one of our beverages today” (the fine print says 1.6 billion, in case you don’t want to wait till midnight to see it stop). Some more stats from their site: 92, 400 employees, 3000+ products, sold in 200+ countries, in business for 123 years, and their stock has risen in value every year of the last 47. Coke Is It!
The mainstream side of their Granville Station ads show the pure red blooded rapture of fans right into a great fuckin’ hockey game (or some other unseen Winter Olympic sport)(maybe curling or cross country skiing). People scream! They hug! They stare with great big smiles on their faces! Ahhhhh!!!! Ooohhhhhhhh!!!! Yeeaaaahhhhhhh!!! No nuanced reactions here. There’s no room in this world for uncertainty, pathos or regret. Why would there be? Sports is at least partially about that jingoistic bliss where your side is going to KICK THE OTHER GUYS’ ASSES. Bottles and cups of Coke abound, but everyone’s focus is on the sports.
On the other hand, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the people in these ads are from different ethinicities, united in joy. A white guy screams in excitement with a black guy screaming back! A black guy and an Asian guy scream and hug! A white person sits next to a brown person who sits next to a black person who sits next to a yellow person. Everyone’s smiling! World peace and harmony has happened at last! Ahhhhhh!!!!
So the ads simultaneous play to the mainstream sports crowd and the diversity/equality people (postmodernists, by another name - who’d more likely be into an independent product, wouldn’t they?). Coke’s been doing this two sided approach for a while. Remember I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony? Happy people of all nations holding hands on a hilltop, singing and drinking Coke. That was 1971.
They mix these two strains of appeal in this line from their website: “The Coca-Cola Company is the world's largest beverage company, refreshing consumers with nearly 500 sparkling and still brands. Globally, we are the No. 1 provider of sparkling beverages, juices and juice drinks and ready-to-drink teas and coffee. With an enduring commitment to building sustainable communities, our Company is focused on initiatives that protect the environment, conserve resources and enhance the economic development of the communities where we operate.” Various other passages throughout their site employ this strategy of bragging about how huge they are and then using the green crowd’s favourite words in the next sentence.
But Coke has nothing to do with diversity - it’s the most macro product there is, thriving on uniformity, and insisting on it. Coke has no connection to athleticism. If Olympic athletes drink Coke, it’s not at the behest of their trainers. What does Coke have to do with celebration? Sports fans don’t reach for Coke first - not if there’s beer anywhere in the vicinity (or pot, given that these ads ostensibly take place in Vancouver). Coke and Canadian nationalism is an awkward combination - Coke’s the most iconic American product there is, such an immediate and undisputed symbol of US corporate imperialism as to inspire the term “Coca-Colonization”.
How does Coke reconcile these contradictions? By ignoring them. By presenting their product in this very deliberately engineered context and saying “This is the way things are. Coke means diversity, athleticism, nationalism and celebration. See? There it is, right in front of you.” That’s what advertisements are for. Get these images in people’s heads and rewrite reality.
They’re no fools at Coca-Cola. If that chunk of the population that brings cloth bags to the grocery store, has No Logo on their book shelves and feels good about their local TV station having an ethnic newscaster - if those people wind up winning this long and winding war of ideologies, Coke wants to be there to quench their thirst. But they’re banking on that crowd still being swayable by the power of a strong authority asserting itself with force laced with happy feel good buzz words and images.
Or maybe Coke will evolve. Maybe the coming decades will see versions of Coke that are genuinely, demonstrably good for your health. Maybe they’ll invent local Cokes, made from natural ingredients and building on local tastes, engineered by local soft drink scientists. They’re already using words like “sustainability” on their website, and contribute to numerous charities. They turned off their lights for Earth Hour, as part of their “continued commitment to action on climate change”. Maybe they’ll become the first mega-corporation to switch to wind or solar power. Maybe they’ll be the first to welcome unions and guarantee all of their third world employees a living wage. If they do, you can bet you’ll hear about it from their marketing department.