Coca-Cola is not life

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Coca-Cola has seized a lot of screen time in both the final season of Mad Men (ending its run tonight!) and in the debut season of HAPPYish; I’ve been, if not perplexed, perturbed by its prevalence. As if Coca-Cola does not have its hands wringing our necks at every turn with clever-as-fuck ad campaigns, product placement and brand ubiquity that is so deeply ingrained in our lives that we don’t even notice it and think it’s totally normal.

I had forgotten when I wrote about Coca-Cola woven into two of Sunday night’s TV offers that I recently was “upgraded” to a branded hotel room in Oslo – I don’t know if the room had a name, but I will call it the “Coca-Cola Life room”. It featured a small living room and a bedroom and a whole lot of Coca-Cola Life pictures and banners as well as a fridge filled with this bizarre Coca-Cola Life beverage – all gratis.

Coca-Cola is not life - hotel room Oslo

Coca-Cola is not life – hotel room Oslo

For those unfamiliar, Coca-Cola Life (this website is the ugliest thing I have ever seen Coke make) is Coke’s sort of new low-calorie drink. It has some actual sugar but is mostly sweetened with Stevia. I don’t think it’s been launched in the US yet but it’s not something I would go out looking for no matter where I am. I had noticed it in the stores in Sweden and wondered whether it was some kind of ill-advised cola-flavored energy drink. And when I ended up in a Coca-Cola Life branded room, I had more than enough time to read the label and taste the results. (Nothing to report – tastes like any other cola drink and did not really seem like a “diet” version of most soda.)

But you know what? Coca-Cola is not life. Duh. There’s something mystifying, sad and offensive about Coca-Cola taking a word as simple as “life” and co-opting it to sell tooth rot in a bottle.

Best part of the hotel room by the way – a weird drawer/cupboard with the toy hind-end of a big cat as handle.

big cat ass drawer handle

big cat ass drawer handle

Coca-Cola and “assholery”: Mad Men and HAPPYish

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Coca-Cola believes it taught us to sing. Or at least it believes it is so intrinsic to our lives that we won’t even notice its ubiquitous presence in our favorite TV shows. How pervasive Coca-Cola suddenly is in two TV shows that focus on the advertising industry: Mad Men and HAPPYish. If everyone in the world is an asshole, as the TV show HAPPYish posits, then ad men are the biggest assholes in the world, selling asshole ideas to a world of susceptible asshole sheep-herd consumers.

“In this toilet of a world, the asshole is king*.” Everyone loves the asshole.

“Your problem is that you think that assholes are some sort of anomaly, some sort of aberration. Nature is an asshole factory, my friend. If you exist, you’re an asshole*.”

Throughout the latter half of the final season of Mad Men, there have been multiple references to Coca-Cola, as present as Lucky Strike was to its first season. The references are subtle – talking about Coke like it is the holy grail of advertising, what all ad men aspire to. With only one episode left, it remains to be seen whether all these mentions lead somewhere or are just planted for the sake of talking about Coke. Lucky Strike’s dominance in season one, and the ad men’s urgent campaign to wipe out the rising tide of health warnings against smoking, foreshadowed a brave-faced Betty Draper Francis being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Do the constant references to Coke as Mad Men winds down – the pursuit of their business – foreshadow the oncoming proliferation of diabetes, obesity and other health ills that soon overtake America? Is Matthew Weiner painting a cautionary tale in broad strokes? The vices we desire are ultimately what will kill us, but there are awfully compelling, glossy ad campaigns that make these vices appear however ad men want them to look – seductive, sexy, wholesome, beautiful, “toasted” (Don Draper’s pitch to Lucky Strike in season one) or a harbinger of world peace (“I’d like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony… I’d like the buy the world a Coke…”). All in the consumerist pursuit of elusive happiness and using manipulative, asshole tactics to convince us that a sugar-filled drink can accomplish anything of the kind.

Quite a different show about advertising, HAPPYish started off pretty weak and is still far from perfect. But in episode four, it started to get better. In it, the ad team at the heart of the show is pitching Coca-Cola. Much less subtle and totally over-the-top, the episode began with showing a bunch of young ad interns a parody of the original Coca-Cola “I’d like to teach the world to sing” ad. The actual Coke pre-pitch turns out to be a slap in the face to the young, Swedish upstarts trying to overtake the agency with their rejection of traditional ad campaign tactics. Oh the Swenglish sounds, spewing such corporate marketing psychobabble and insanity! One of the Swedish duo, Gottfried, exclaims, “We don’t need campaigns any more. It’s one smart idea, and it changes the world, ok? We need ideation! We need social integration. We needs events, we need moments… it wasn’t a war that started the Egyptian revolution, it was fucking Facebook.”

The show’s main character, Steve Coogan’s Thom Payne replies, “And the Egyptian revolutionaries.”

Bradley Whitford, the manager of the agency, grows more irate: “I don’t think Egypt is the best case study for the long-term effectiveness of social media.”

Gottfried: “It’s like you told me when we first met about Al Qaeda. They’re a great brand but what makes them a great brand? They don’t make campaigns – they make events: 9/11, 7/7, Charlie Hebdo…” ?!

Whitford’s Jonathan exclaims in angry exasperation: “THIS IS COCA-fucking-COLA! They couldn’t be less insurgent-like if they fucking tried!*”

The idiotic Swedish upstart interjects his “end of campaigns” BS and tries to tell Coke they can be an insurgent. After the Swedish wunderkind makes an ass of himself pitching the death of advertising, Bradley Whitford’s Jonathan jumps in to pitch Coca-Cola on a level it will understand: domination… in the form of the programmed, hyperdetailed, 600+ page 1933 Nazi organization brand bible: “This is what Coke needs” – the book that, Jonathan claims, makes Mein Kampf look like child’s play. He urges them to embrace global dominance the way the Nazis did – as no brand has ever been as powerful as the Nazi brand, not even Coke. “Domination is the same goal no matter what you’re selling. Coca-Cola is not a brand: it’s an uber-brand; it’s a movement that deserves a fanatical devotion*.”

HAPPYish’s antihero, Payne, ends up declaring, after the Coca-Cola pitch nightmare and a conversation about how society has cast philosophy and insight aside to look for wisdom in advertising and in retail therapy (“It’s not hard to be a genius in a world that looks to shopping bags for insights.”): “If I hadn’t met Lee (Payne’s wife), it wouldn’t be funny at all. We’re the only ones on earth that the other one can stand. Maybe that’s all you can ask for on this planet. One non-asshole. After all, the pursuit of happiness is the source of all unhappiness. You know who said that? LuLu Fucking Lemon. Here on planet asshole, the shopping bag knows all.”

Mad Men and its revelation-via-ad-campaign has echoed these same reflections, questions and explorations in its characters’ pursuit of happiness. It is a subtler, quieter evaluation of happiness and man’s wants in life. But it is further evidence of what HAPPYish hammered home – everyone is an asshole, which has been proven time and again in seven seasons of Mad Men.

*All quotes from season 1, episode 4 of Showtime’s HAPPYish

Scandinavian Man Invasion on TV

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Anyone as obsessed with TV as I am knows that Nordic TV shows have asserted a kind of quality and dominance that has garnered well-deserved praise and attention (and the inevitable English-language – and other – remakes, as with The Killing mirroring the Danish Forbrydelsen and the Swedish/Danish production Bron spawning American/Mexican offshoot, The Bridge, and UK/French offshoot, The Tunnel).

Amidst the sea of fantastic Scandinavian television show choices, one cannot overlook the strength and ubiquity of the Scandinavian actors on English-language TV shows. TV has been taken over by Scandinavian men… I will undoubtedly forget some of them (yes there are that many!) but the most notable that spring to mind right now include some pretty startling, arresting performances:

Mads Mikkelsen (Denmark) in Hannibal

Ulrich Thomsen (Denmark) in Banshee

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Denmark) in Game of Thrones

Joel Kinnaman (Sweden/USA) in The Killing

Alexander Skarsgård (Sweden) in True Blood

Bill Skarsgård (Sweden) in Hemlock Grove

Peter Stormare (Sweden) in The Blacklist

Of note, Stormare is also starring in a series of Volvo Trucks ads (not unlike Jean-Claude Van Damme!) that champions Swedish values – see below. Stormare rules – cannot help but think of him again frequently now that there is a TV version of Fargo. He was a highlight in the film version.

Better safe than sorry!

Look at him “fika” all by himself!

Might not want to try “allemansrätten” wherever you come from (especially the USA where “stand your ground” might take precedence)

Nowhere in the world will you see as many dads with prams!

Substantial Swedish food!

Lagom! The Swedish Goldilocks complex!

Darri Ingólfsson (Iceland) in Dexter

Christopher Heyerdahl (Canada) in Hell on Wheels (honorable mention since he is not really a Norwegian but beautifully plays a Norwegian who shifts like a chameleon into different identities as it suits him but is known in the beginning as “The Swede”)

Updated

Gustaf Skarsgård (Sweden) – Vikings (Yes, there are a lot of those Skarsgårds!)

Kristofer Hivju (Norway) – Game of Thrones (Finally – a real Norwegian to add to the list!)

Stat Explosion and Data Overload

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May 18 skewed my blog statistics in a big way. As someone who manages a very niche, limited-reach blog for a corporation in my professional life (obviously not THIS blog), this sudden and brief explosion was an interesting look at what immediately drives traffic (a retweet from a famous person). Or rather what won’t. The corporate blog gets readers, and the number of readers and subscribers grows slowly but steadily. It is such a specialized area that it is not as though it would ever get the kind of readership that even my personal blog gets – and my personal blog is all over the place – personal, lacking in a theme or point and not actively trying to drive anything. It started as a baking/recipe blog when my colleagues (whom I had stuffed to near-death with cookies and cupcakes) demanded recipes. It evolved into a dumping ground for my thoughts and commentary on television, news/current events and all manner of other nonsense. Even if my personal blog had a steadier stream of traffic than my work blog (makes sense because the randomness of my personal blog means that all kinds of Google searches, from Mobutu Sese Seko to white chocolate macadamia cookies, from the benefits of telecommuting, to pictures of brown sugar cupcakes piled high with mounds of maple Swiss meringue buttercream and candied bacon. might lead someone to my blog), I never achieved any great reach.

on the bacon bandwagon

on the bacon bandwagon

Until today, my personal blog’s best stats never reached more than 250 visitors – and that was when I was baking a lot and posting recipes and pictures of cakes. In the absence of that, I maybe get 30 or 40 visitors. I am not that concerned with the statistics on my personal blog – I write it for my own sake and if someone else gets there and likes it, or even doesn’t like it, that’s fine with me.

But this morning, which has felt like a neverending night now that Swedish near-endless light nights are here, I posted an article about how I finally watched the witty and insightful Inside Amy Schumer, despite the misleading, one-dimensional Comedy Central ads for it that had so long turned me off. I posted about the blog via Twitter, which was retweeted from Schumer’s own account, which then led to what is for me an unprecedented avalanche of activity. Suddenly my phone was chiming: ding ding ding ding ding ding because, thanks to Schumer’s devotees (a more pleasant word than “followers”), people were retweeting and favoriting my original tweet. (Yes, I am perfectly aware of how asinine this sounds. A non-Millennial person describing the tweet and retweet process like it’s really serious business just sounds funny – even if it does have its own importance. It’s just not the be-all, end-all.)

But more than that, the link to the blog in which I wrote about changing my mind about Amy Schumer’s show made the blog statistics skyrocket. In a couple of hours, there were well over 1,000 visitors. The downside is that this opens the door to a lot of unprovoked criticism from complete strangers. But then yeah, the world’s full of haters, and that is completely fine. I hate a lot of stuff too. It is also easy to have a knee-jerk reaction (no emphasis on “jerk” or anything) – as I did to the ads, and as the commenter had to my post. But I am sure we are both cool enough people in our real lives.

The only comment on the Amy Schumer blog entry, in fact, was a negative one, basically laying into me for my “judgmental, accusatorial” observations about an ad. But, as I commented back (and I think we’re cool now), most of our judgments and decisions are kind of “split second” in nature – especially to ads. They are meant to appeal to us on some level, get our attention and in 30 seconds to make us want to do something, consume something, watch something or buy something (I won’t even use as strong a word as “persuade” since it’s more like advertisers tease and tempt with an elevator speech – so shouldn’t it be a bit more tempting, somehow?). Of course, I don’t know who the target audience was with the Schumer ads, but it’s not me – and that’s fine. But I still had to see them, and I made a judgment that watching the show might not be the best use of my time. Or that it would be as crass and shallow as the ads made it seem. That is no judgment of the show itself or Amy Schumer. And my writing about it was more like, “Hey, I was completely wrong about this – and the two people who read this blog and generally trust my opinions on these matters should know it. Watch Inside Amy Schumer!”

With a fleeting moment of greater reach, you simultaneously become a lightning strike (gone in a flash) and a lightning rod.

I suppose a celeb retweet or starting/being part of a trending topic is the sort of thing that one has to get to gain some traction. Even if, for example, in this case, it is a bunch of clicks – not “traction”. We all know it but there’s no way to predict whether any social media activity will lead to anything. Visitors to my personal blog are nice – but much like in the corporate blog environment, it’s not like they stuck around and read other things. And for personal writing, it doesn’t matter. I write what I write, I post it online and to a limited extent in social channels, but I am not writing for an audience or to achieve something.

But for the corporate writing, you sort of want to extend the reach – establish yourself as a thought leader – but you cannot do anything to damage your credibility or try to somehow get that reach artificially. It doesn’t work and won’t hold anyone’s interest. For instance I could try to steer the corporate blog in a direction where “celebrity surgeons” (is there such a thing other than the odd Dr Oz and some plastic surgeons who show up on makeover shows??) somehow feel compelled to retweet the content, but while that might extend reach for a day, it is not delivering quality or longevity or even the target audience we’d want to reach.

In a kind of related area…

“Data data data – you cannot make bricks without clay…” –Sherlock Holmes in TV show Elementary

All this discussion of statistics should lead to an action plan on how to take advantage of statistics and visitor data to guide future blog content – “give the readers what they want”. At least this is true for the corporate blog – consumer/user/customer responsiveness and centricity is really the only way to ensure continued growth for something like this.

I have been participating in a Coursera/Wharton School online class about marketing, and this week was all about customer-centricity. Since I work a lot with the ideas underpinning “taming Big Data” to gain customer insights in my freelance work, the whole idea of customer focus as one of the only real ways to differentiate makes a lot of sense – and customer data (overload) is the key to giving users what they want.

Never mind that I am totally distracted listening to the professor, Peter Fader, deliver his lectures, because he sounds too much like Bob Odenkirk – so I am supposed to be looking at a PowerPoint slide describing a couple of case studies of companies that have put customer data to good use, but it’s like I am hearing Saul Goodman explaining customer centricity to me. (And Saul Goodman arguably did put his customers first, sometimes to his own detriment and at his own peril.)

This customer-centric, data-driven approach is finally taking root in all kinds of business segments and industries. As Fader pointed out, direct marketing has always used data to target customers – but now, in the digital age, this data is readily available to almost everyone (I won’t get into the ethics of data collection, privacy, etc. except to say that while it’s great for businesses, it’s creepy for customers – see a recent article about a pregnant woman and Princeton professor who had to go to insane lengths to hide her pregnancy from advertisers, retailers and the Big Data machine.) At first companies like Google and Amazon tapped into user data because it’s in their DNA – I have spent a lot of time looking at how old-style, traditional publishers who lost both revenue and subscribers in the big digital shift are now taking back control their data (they had ceded a lot of it to third parties who started taking an ever-larger share of the pie from them) to target their website visitors, readers, subscribers with content and advertising that is highly personalized. And just today I saw a news report about a museum in London that has begun to use all kinds of data collection (traditional and digital) to continue to attract visitors. As the report stated, “Research is a key part of the museum’s arsenal.”

The application of data and personalization is the next logical step, but I wonder about the quality and longevity of this too. Collecting, analyzing and applying user data can only go so far before people feel as though someone is always looking over their shoulder. I cannot help but wonder if that sense of Big Data infiltrating one’s life will start to feel too much like Big Brother and begin to change and influence consumer behavior?

(As advertised – I rambled aimlessly!)

Ad Dads: The Wholesome Mix of What’s Good for Business

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How things change – and suddenly. I won’t say they change fast because that they definitely do not. Gay equality – I won’t even call it “gay rights” because it comes down to human rights and equality for all, and the gay community has been one group that suffers most from the lack of equality afforded to them as individuals and as couples/families. I recall being in New York only a handful of years ago with a fantastic woman – and if I remember correctly, we talked then about how unlikely it seemed that she would ever be able to marry a partner. I do not remember if we discussed it as an American situation (as in, never being able to marry in her own country) or a state phenomenon (meaning the state she lived in at the time). But even three or four years ago, the idea that gay couples would finally be granted the legal right to marry in as many US states as they now have seemed like a far-off dream. Change happens, and sometimes when it starts to change, it happens fast. What seems like a formidable wall turns out to be built only of dominos. It looks like one little push sends all the dominos tumbling. This is not to discount the decades and decades of active fighting for these rights – it is only a comment that once change is afoot, it is virtually unstoppable – and it is not long before the mainstream embraces the change.

Inevitably that mainstream charge leads to big business getting on board, too. Some more than others. Some with small nods to the change – others with much bigger, more visible, overt exclamation about the change. A piece in The New Yorker chronicles the recent controversy surrounding a popular Honey Maid graham cracker ad campaign, which features a happy family headed by two men. Naturally the original ad campaign sparked positive and negative feedback, and Honey Maid followed up with a response to both the positive and negative. But let’s say in their overt advertising, they put their money where their mouth is. They went so far as to use a word synonymous with their brand (“wholesome”) to describe all kinds of families and all kinds of love. (“Most striking is the tagline of the ad: “No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.” The ad is deeply heartwarming—not simply because it shows diversity (which other companies have done) but because it labels these families with the word “wholesome,” which is exactly the kind of word that tends to get claimed by the evangelical right.”)

What drives this? I understand how the basics change in society that propel more and more people who perhaps do not even support gay marriage themselves to no longer actively oppose it. There is a difference. But what drives the very public shift in how things are shown and presented as just one variation of the norm versus some kind of anomaly?

If the trend in society is breaking one way, the article argues, it boils down to what’s good for business: “Advertising both follows and leads to change. Marketers’ objective is to sell things, and they will seldom be brave enough to jeopardize their own interests, but their own interests appear to be changing. At some quiet moment when “Modern Family” was reaping good ratings, the mentality of corporate America began to change.”

It follows with reference to Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoing anti-gay legislation – not for the sake of equality but for what’s good for business: “Regard for equal human rights did not drive Brewer; the threat of losing the Super Bowl did. (How did the Super Bowl become the nexus of gay rights?) It turns out that tolerating gay people is good for business, even in Arizona. I’d prefer that people such as I get our rights because we command respect and evince dignity, but if we get them because there’s money in it, that’s fine.”

While I am content with whatever expands tolerance, I do have to wonder of course about the fickle nature of American acceptance – perhaps much of America has accepted gay marriage more or less, but at the same time as the article tackles the economic impetus driving some of this, it also addresses briefly a Cheerios ad campaign featuring an interracial family. General Mills, maker of Cheerios, received an unbelievable amount of hateful, racist commentary that came in via their YouTube channel, to the degree that comments were disabled. Bringing the discussion back to general human rights and equality, has American society (and business more generally – at least for now) decided that gay rights are something to get behind/support while racial tension and hatred is fine (or simmering under the surface) for large swathes of the country?

I wonder seriously how that can be – at a point where for the first time in American history the majority of babies born in America are not white (according to 2010 US Census data), and interracial families are growing in number (the 2008 census counted new marriages between interracial couples at 15 percent of the US population; 2010 census data show that among opposite-sex married couples, one in 10 is interracial, a 28% jump since 2000. In 2010, 18% of heterosexual unmarried couples were of different races and 21% of same-sex couples were mixed). A crowdsourced website was even started in response to the Cheerios ad. Similarly, a 2013 Gallup poll indicated that 87 percent of those polled approved of black-white marriage (versus an almost non-existent four percent in 1958). If virtually the entire population (at least those polled – granted, not a huge number — 4,373 Americans, including 1,010 non-Hispanic blacks) feels favorably about this (or is at least indifferent), are we just looking at a handful of racist idiots posting comments on YouTube, hiding behind the semi-anonymity of the internet?

The mixing is happening, the mixing is real. The mixing is growing more and more common. So why and how could a Cheerios ad celebrating the reality of this be so controversial? And really – why does anyone care? I mean, yes, I care in that I believe firmly in live and let live. Even if you don’t support or agree with something, you can tolerate it because it has nothing to do with you.

Ultimately it seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same. But at least some of the positive changes are real and make material differences in the rights and equality afforded to some of the population.

Advertising done right: It breaks one’s heart – Save the Children Sweden

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Every day when I watch the The Daily Show and Colbert Report on the internet, I see a bunch of Swedish ads (or Comedy Central ads for mostly offensive-seeming and unfunny shows I will never watch). Since I don’t own a TV, I never actually see Swedish advertising in its “real” environment. (I won’t get started on advertising having a real place across devices – it does, but that is not my point.) I am only saying that for the most part, I escape the majority of television advertising because it is not integral to the way I consume media. Therefore, when a Swedish ad shows up in my internet broadcast, I am not annoyed since these are virtually the only times I see examples of Swedish ads. I even remarked on one in a past blog entry about an ad I liked that included farming, a farmer, a tractor, some grains, a weird pizza and a sort of intense-looking cat.

No ad, however, has affected me quite like the Save the Children/Rädda Barnen ad (and the whole campaign) using children’s stuffed animals as vehicles for connecting emotionally with the viewer. Basically the idea is “Sexual abuse happens where children should be safe” (or feel safest). The campaign achieves its aim of, as the creative agency responsible for it (Lowe Brindfors) describes, getting people “emotional and engaged”. How can you not be emotional and engaged when someone has visualized the fact that “Sexual abuse often happens where children should feel the safest. And the child’s best friend, a stuffed animal, is often present.”?

As someone who perhaps overpersonifies my lifelong (stuffed) friend, Teddy, the campaign does hit me particularly hard.

NFL Football Advertising

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Everyone knows that the Super Bowl is the biggest advertising event of the year. But I realized while streaming the playoffs the other night that the NFL and the advertisers know their audience: men who want to be rugged by driving trucks. I swear that every commercial was about trucks – big trucks.

One old ad about Ford trucks always freaks me out.