Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Strangely enough, I was thinking about Coke’s latest flavah last week while walking on the street when I passed three 12- or 13-year-old girls discussing the very same thing. The loudest one, the girl with the 50 or so wristbands, told her friends, “I forgot to tell you I tasted Vanilla Coke!” They idled on their platform sandals as they turned to her for the verdict. She screwed up her face, braces gleaming in the sun, and shrieked, “Eeeeeeuuuuuww!”

There has been a lot of buzz and speculation about the flavored cola ever since the Atlanta mothership announced its new brand child. And finding and tasting the secret sauce has even taken on something of an illicit thrill (an early sample went for three figures on eBay). Curiosity and in trigue is also the idea behind this new campaign from The Martin Agency. For Coke, especially, it contains many shockers: no outdoor scenes, no sun, no water, no gleaming, no smiling tweens, no long glug-glugs from the bottle.

Instead, we get dark rooms, dark suits and the Mafia. Yes, in an entirely startling move, Coke has tapped into the country’s cultural obsession with the mob. (Just this month, John Gotti’s death was our central media story, and I’m sure the televised elements of his final passage will find their way to The Sopranos.)

The inadvertent irony of Coke venturing into the underworld is too good to go unexplored. After all, the company itself is an international, tightly run, secretive, extremely hierarchical organization with tentacles throughout all of the world’s markets—La Cola Nostra! As absurd as it sounds for Coke to want to get mixed up with the mob (even figuratively, in TV images), I do like these particular, er, executions. The spots are beautifully directed by Spielberg protégé Phil Joanou, and stray from the usual, dated Godfather music and dialogue clichés (which Pepsi did a great spoof of a while back with Hallie Eisenberg about disrespecting the brand in a pizza parlor).

Here, the freshest and most unexpected part of the campaign is its star: Chazz Palminteri. He’s the big, dark-haired guy who wrote and acted in the story of his life, A Bronx Tale, and has major movie-gangster credentials. As he looms in the center of both spots, his lines seem to come naturally.

“Fence” is funny, and works much better than the second spot. Open on a street scene in Los Angeles, in which your average open-faced 19-year-old guy passes a plywood barrier in front of a construction site. The wood (which in the opening shot looks like abstract art) has a large hole to look through, and our Coke-boy does. As soon as his cranium is in, however, he’s grabbed in a headlock by a silent, Regis-dark-shirted bodyguard and spoken to calmly by Chazz. “Congratulations, my friend,” he says. “Your youte-ful curiosity has served you well. And you will be rewarded with a nice Vanilla Coke.” (Bodyguard opens black suitcase, in which three bottles are on ice.)

The kid’s head is fed the drink, while Chazz goes on to describe the “smood flavor of vanilla, so intriguing.” The kid pops his head back out. The spot ends with a thuggish arm, black suit and big digital watch coming through the hole, proferring the bottle.

The second spot takes place in what seems to be a hotel: A kid sees an arrow on a door leading to a peephole and looks through. He’s pulled inside, where Chazz tells him, “You a curious young man. And curiosity could have repercussions.” The danger inherent in the whole indoor situation seems a bit too creepy and Pulp Fiction—I guess that’s why both of the curious ones are male. Both spots end with the tagline, spoken by Chazz, “Reward your curiosity wid new Vanilla Coke.”

In the end, of course, the beverage will live or die on its taste—the advertising may drive people to sample, but not continue to drink. But I have to say that I like the first spot, especially since Coke (if unconsciously) makes fun of its own secretive nature, and the result is so (if unintentionally) honest and non-vanilla. Bada bing, you might say, it’s da real ting.