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Coke selling sexism


Diet Coke Love It Light girlsThe Australian summer offers something to love for just about any type of person: the beach person, the family person, those who loathe the five-day work week. And if you're an ad person — not a Mad Man, but a fan of such a character's creations — it's usually a treat to see a new seasonal wave of advertising by Coke.

Coke's advertising campaigns are successful for many reasons, not the least of which is saturation. But they're also often distinctive and sharp.

Ask some people to picture a polar bear, for example, and most Australians will still think automatically of Coke's over Bundaberg Rum's. Coke's polar bear was introduced in 1993, and in recent years has been decreasingly utilised; but it's easy to see that it has far outpaced its initial advertising budget.

This summer's campaign for Diet Coke has been distinctive for the wrong reasons. Each of the ads features a computer-generated character that looks suspiciously Bratz-like, posing beside a playful, assertive slogan. 'Shopping is my favourite kind of cardio!' one enthuses.

'Three words every little girl loves to hear: It's. On. Sale,' says another.

The world is full of advertising that either miscalculates its audience, or reveals frightening things about what we like — frightening because the things we like are often an expression of who we are. But to see these ads from Coke is particularly shocking because when Coke comes up with a good advertisement, it's exquisitely exciting.

It scratches a weird, deep itch when we're made to want to buy something in a way that feels intelligent and fresh. Coke manages to scratch that itch frequently. Phraseology after phraseology — 'always the real thing','things go better with Coke', simple word after simple word in such powerful new contexts — Coke seems able to telegraph moments the culture hasn't known it's been waiting for.

That kind of cultural prescience requires a serious kind of energy, and it's an energy Coke's customers seem to appreciate. Along with the taste of the Coke product, people seem to feel fondly, of all things, about its branding: Coke's advertising succeeds partly because we want it to.

But the frequency with which Coke nails us probably causes us to misremember the overall quality of its output. To me, the new Diet Coke ads feel lazy, cheap, sexist, and patronising.

Of course the market research would reveal that affluent women might enjoy cardio. Of course Bratz dolls are what one would think of if one wanted to make a product 'kicky'. It's all the right research. It's what advertising euphemistically calls 'insights'. But it's got none of our general understanding of that term.

According to Coke, the characters in the Diet Coke ads are supposed to be puppets, not Bratz dolls or robo-girls. While they've only hit Australia this summer, they've been present in the UK since March, when Diet Coke launched them to compete with a Diet Pepsi campaign.

The puppets' names are Eleanor, Bernadette and Irene, and they 'encapsulate the Love it Light spirit'. Eleanor — the redhead — is 'sassy', says the puppets' Facebook app, 'the girl with a passion for fashion. Her lighter attitude to life will always leave you smiling. It's time to celebrate fun, fashion and fabulousness with Eleanor and Diet Coke!'

Sultry Bernadette, the frizzy blonde one, is 'the girl in the know, and certainly knows a thing or two about life! The other girls turn to her for their gossip fix, and love it light when they do!'

And Irene is 'the life and soul of the party, and always shares her fun, fabulous insights with the girls to keep things light and positive!'

By the way: I'm not a girl, and I know this campaign is not targeting me. But I've broached the topic of this campaign with a number of girls, girls who are qualitatively different from each other, humans who respond in discrete ways to creative and commercial stimuli. I spoke to lots of girls about this campaign. They don't like it.

Whether or not you're a fan of marketing, it's incredible that Coca Cola's marketing has had as many hits as it has. Large-scale advertising, to maximise its impact, usually aims for a low common denominator. So when an ad for a successful product is funny, smart, and canny, that's probably a very special thing. And when a company has several campaigns that feel somehow special, it might be more than we should hope to expect.

Besides which, when it's not a hit, the Coke brand is elastic — it has endless power to absorb its own bad advertising. Its slogan for the year 1933, for instance, was 'Don't Wear a Tired, Thirsty Face'. That's a long way from today's Coca Cola, which is always, for better or worse, the real thing.

And what if these Coke ads are somebody's 'real thing' — if they do feel special to someone? The problem isn't that I know they deserve better. The problem is that Coke must know it, too. 

Ronnie ScottRonnie Scott's writing has appeared in Heat, Bookslut, The Big Issue, and The Rumpus. He is editor of The Lifted Brow, a biannual magazine based in Brisbane and Melbourne.

Topic tags: Ronnie Scott, Diet Coke, Polar Bear, Bundaberg Rum, Love it Light



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Existing comments

Could not agree more! Thank-you for writing this, the ads have been irking me for some time. Grrrr.

laura | 19 January 2011  

If you think this is bad you should try and buy presents for little girls. The message out there is that girls are only interested in fashion, makeup, pink and glitter. Aisles of the stuff. It is a form of brain washing. It is not only mums of girls who should be concerned mums of boys you also should be concerned as these little 'princesses' are going to be the wives of your boys and the mothers of your grandchildren.

Be careful the next time you say to a little girl 'my goodness you look pretty' because all the messages now reinforce that she has to look good for others to admire. She has no other value.

Joy | 19 January 2011  

I totally agree. I actually stopped short when walking through a mall the other day when I saw the 'girls' as I was so surprised and offended with such a lightweight representation of women. After a good look, I realised they were puppets which I was slightly happier with. Still a disappointing campaign for such a great brand.

Johanna | 19 January 2011  

Thanks for that Ronnie. I NEVER DRINK COKE. It ruins one's teeth, and contributes heavily to obesity. How some of us can be so gullible as to consume the stuff is scary.

Joyce Parkes | 19 January 2011  

Thanks for posting this article Ronnie. I'm glad I'm not alone! I noticed these creatures pop up around the streets lately. I was rather confused when I realised they were Coke ads. I couldn't work out the age of their target market, and I cannot imagine an intelligent woman finding this campaign appealing. I'm even more disturbed to know the creatures have names and "personalities"!

Kim | 12 February 2011  

not nearly as sexist as the new diet coke ad where a bunch of women perv on a man opening a can of coke that sprays all over his top and then they watch him take off his top. the soundtrack is nothing over than "I just wanna make love to you"

felix | 17 June 2013