Coke on Thin Ice

“Snowball,” the first of two 60-second Coca-Cola spots created by Wieden + Kennedy for the Winter Olympics (and launched recently on American Idol), opens on a cozy, snow-covered sign that reads: “Olympic Village, Whistler, B.C.”

With that established, we move on to our hero Coke drinker, a young Canadian athlete (we can tell from the maple leaf and “Canada” on his red-and-white uniform) who gets the bottle knocked out of his hand by an act of nature — a chunk of snow launched by a falling icicle. He thinks someone hit him with a snowball. A teammate next to him takes offense, too.

“Hey, Sven, Gustav and Magnus — get a load of this!” the first guy seems to be saying, as he lobs a few snowballs at his ostensibly Swedish rivals. (There’s no dialog, only winter sounds and music.) We can tell this is the Swedish team because of the giant Ikea sign behind them. Actually, no — it’s their light-blue and yellow uniforms. That and the platinum hair (a wig?) one of them sports. The typecasting throughout is so humorless yet surreal that some characters seem to come straight out of an old Mentos commercial.

Then the action, um, snowballs. The world joins in (or at least, the American, Russian and Japanese teams do) in a strained, politically correct way. And our hero embarks on a dangerous trek amid flying snow to a distant Coke machine to replace his lost bottle.

As with many Coke spots past, the iconic cola brand is supposed to serve here as the galvanizer for some high-energy high jinks and global kumbaya. But the merriment is as forced as the caricature — like team members. Mostly, the snowball fight doesn’t seem all that much fun, despite the care, expert cutting and CG that clearly went into it.

There’s tension and hostility lurking under the surface — just like at the real Olympics or, for that matter, at NBC, broadcaster of the upcoming games. Never mind all the late-night programming problems and squabbles. The icing on the icing for NBC is that the rising costs of rights and waning of ad sales mean it will apparently lose money on the games for the first time.

As for this Coke spot, despite some fun winter-sport references in the course of our guy’s cross-compound trek (a hockey shot, a slalom move, a snowboard used as a shield), it never gels. Unlike Coke’s polar bears, who basked in the aurora borealis while lazing around their frozen tundra, and who somehow appealed to the Snuggie wearer inside us all, “Snowball” hardly warms us up to the idea of having a cold one.

After he’s buried under an avalanche, wouldn’t this guy’s fingers (or tongue) stick to the bottle? I kept waiting for the payoff — that our hero-athlete would sing (he does look like someone from Glee) or maybe even teach the world something. With no real ending — just another beginning, which makes it seem like the snowball troubles will continue forever — the message reads more like, “I’d like to buy myself a Coke and keep it just for me.”

Judging from the weird, bland vibe, that would be a Vanilla Coke, thank you very much.

Why the faux-fun blandness? Does it have something to do with the global scope of the spots? Coke’s Super Bowl ads of 2007, “Videogame” and “Happiness Factory,” were wordless and global, and still managed to be inventive and delightful. Each took a contemporary, dull reality and turned it around — i.e., “Open happiness.” The concepts behind “Snowball” and the second spot, “Finals,” could have been used at any time in the drink’s history.

“Finals” is beautifully executed — the animated parts are exquisite. It’s also a cooler concept and I like it a lot more than “Snowball,” even if it starts out like a not-terribly-memorable mashup of kids’ movies like A Night at the Museum and past spots.

It seems to take place in some pre-computer age. A college kid is shown slumped at his desk, asleep in front of his history books, with a not-subtle “History final, 11:30 a.m.” note on his calendar. It’s 11:25. Slowly, like worms wriggling out, characters from the books come to life and start assaulting the kid, trying to wake him.

There’s Napoleon and his army (and they are beautiful toy soldiers) and some miniature Native Americans with arrows. Finally, we see a wacky flying machine beautifully re-created from the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci. Perched inside it, Leo and friends figure out how to uncap the Coke bottle sitting next to the kid, which awakens him. He gulps the drink and runs off to his exam.

But doesn’t the situation beg for Red Bull? The Coke really isn’t a catalyst for anything.

Forget the kid and his drink. What’s most inspiring is the dream team of genius designer Leo, inventor Ben Franklin and boat launcher Cleopatra. Too bad they didn’t get more screen time. Anything they pull off together would be dynamite. Even a snowball fight.

See also:

“British Columbia Looks Past Olympics”

“Social Rings for Winter Olympics”

“Digital OOH’s Olympic Shot”