Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Mixed Drink

Given the image Siberia that Coke has inhabited since the passing of the polar bears several years ago, this new campaign is a definite im provement. It’s beautifully directed and interestingly cast, offers an R&B/ hip-hop tune that goes down easily—and is never terrible or embarrassing. It provides a consistently elevated level of production and smarts that’s been missing in Coke work (not to mention an even more dynamic ribbon under the redder logo).

That said, the campaign is made up of diverse spots that, though they’re all intelligent, don’t offer a consistent theme to take away. Nor, within these spots, is there a major Pepsi-Britney-type blockbuster that, love it or hate it, will get people talking the next day. Perhaps Coke wants to differentiate itself from Pepsi’s big jokes and big productions by going indie, although a few star spots manage to pop.

The one that comes closest to producing water-cooler buzz is a quiet but surprising spot featuring Penelope Cruz. It has moments suggesting Cindy Crawford being ogled while drinking from a can at the Pepsi vending machine; it also harkens back to Coke mainstay Mean Joe Greene. Except this is Joe in the age of Jackass, the first spot to combine sex and belching, if that’s a breakthrough.

Cruz, in jeans and a tight, low-cut tank top, flaunts the contours that mimic the cute, curvy Coke bottle. She lifts a bottle and drinks, taking it all down in one shockingly long, open- throated gulp. (Apparently, during the shoot, she did that with three entire Cokes to get it just right.) With the bottle tilted aggressively upward, the act is suggestive. Still, Mean Joe Greene did the long gulp too, and it’s a signature Coke moment (this time it’s backed not by swelling music but the sound of Penelope glug-glugging). The rub is that when she finishes, she lets out a small belch, then covers her mouth, embarrassed.

The idea of a movie star unexpectedly pun cturing her glam image also shows up in a spot with David Arquette and his missus. In a cool open living space, David plays pinball, and Courte ney Cox, playing the good wife, asks if he’d like anything from the kitchen. After some prodding, he requests a Coke. Discovering that just one bottle is left, she gets a block of ice and expertly starts chopping with a pick—which I thought might be a setup for a Scream moment. It’s nothing so violent, but she does have an ulterior motive, and the spot reverses the image we have of each: David is a real gentleman, and Cour teney is crafty. She fills his glass with ice and just a little Coke, while she takes a tiny cube and keeps the lion’s share of the bottle. The sound of the ice tinkling and the pouring is thirst-making, and the un-generosity of the wife is dead-on. So much for Little Miss Perfect.

The idea of salivating for a Coke also surfaces in “Care Package.” A kid comes back to his messy college apartment to find a note to “Tito” from his mom, along with homemade empanadas and a liter of Coke. After he downs the whole lot and is totally satisfied, his roommate—Tito—comes home. It’s clever and convincing.

As for “real,” the word Coke has returned to after ditching “always”: It’s so overused now in reference to the various people in hot tubs on TV that it has lost all meaning. And it’s a losing battle to use “real” in advertising, where everything is fake. But Coke does have a legit connection, and at least the word has been whittled to its essential four letter-ness.

The huge musical component—with 90-, 60- and 30-second ver sions—starring R&B artist Mya and rapper Common has the sense to question the issue. With the hook “Real compared to what?,” from a 1970 jazz release, new lyrics by Common qualify what reality is (“Fame is all a role/It can’t be bought and sold/It’s a trip how the real now is mainstream”).

The longer spots cut between the performance of the music (which rocks) and shots of the whole phony Hollywood scene, including our rapper taking a meeting with an agent who wants to produce Common action figures. The shortest version works best, since the live performances are far more engaging than the faux stuff, which has already been parodied a lot.

This time out, Coca-Cola does not go to the mountaintop and teach the world to sing, but image-wise, it’s back on the map and in from the cold.