Critique: Coke Zero = Hero

NEW YORK When I first heard about promoting Coke Zero with a fake lawsuit (having Coke Classic sue its Zero counterpart for “taste infringement”), I thought the concept might have originated at the law firm of “Obvious & Stupid.” I mean really, how far can we suspend disbelief? And who’s gonna care enough to try to figure it out? And aren’t commercials that use lawyer jokes in order to make fun of legalese—and happen to come from giant conservative global corporations, by the way—pretty lame, anyhow?

As it turns out, the Internet video, which was originally launched as a viral sidebar to conventional TV spots and posted to sites like YouTube, BitTorrent and Kazaa, attracted so much underground attention that the two-minute low-budget clip was cut into three 20-second TV spots, which now run on American Idol and during the March Madness games.

And actually, they work. Crispin Porter + Bogusky plays off the “Obvious & Stupid” thing knowingly, and that offbeat tone somehow leads to clever and fresh.

Instead of killing all the lawyers, as Shakespeare noted (although he obsessed on, and adored, lawyers, but that’s another story), Crispin is punking all the lawyers for real. The funniest spots—and the ones that made it to TV (there are many more on CokeZero.com)—show the actual in-house attorneys at Coca-Cola being set up. Yes, unbeknownst to them, they’ve placed crushed seashells and molten guano into their cherry Cokes—no, not that old ad chestnut.

Actually, they’ve been told to meet with some Coke marketing guys (sad to say, brand managers) on a new project. What the attorneys-at-law don’t know is that a fake wall was built in the generic-ugly conference room to hide cameras that recorded the entire exchange. The two marketing doofuses they’re forced to meet with are actually improv actors, trained to respond to all sorts of reactions and outcomes.

These Coke Classic brand manager types are so tragically clueless that they are funny, and the spots are entertaining in an Office sort of way, even down to the drawn out, hugely awkward pauses. It becomes evident that while consumers might be majorly confused about the proliferation of brand extensions, these faux Coke employees are suffering from a form of corporate sibling rivalry.

And after they recovered from the shock of being so forthcoming on internal affairs, everyone who works down in Atlanta must be getting a big kick out of it.

“Do we have a case?” the bald guy asks the white-haired lawyer in the spot called “Jim K.” “I’d like to sue Coke Zero for taste infringement.”

“For whaaaaat?” Jim the lawyer manages to muster up.

“We want to sue them back to the Stone Age to send a message that they can’t mess with the flagship brand,” the younger brand man responds.

“It’s the same company,” the lawyer says, incredulously. “It’s like suing yourself.”

“Yeah, but they’re on a different floor,” the marketing guy on the left says flatly.

(In all three spots, some folks will be disappointed to see that the lawyers all act dispassionately and acquit themselves well, which is impossible to say about the “marketing guys.” You can just see the legal eagles summoning up the strength to remain calm and diplomatic in the face of such idiotic questions, which is hilarious—if bad for the reputation of marketing pros.)

The best installment features attorney “Elizabeth,” who allows herself to get a bit more provoked than the other two. She begins her response with “Taste infringement is not a claim.” Doggedly, the younger brand wonder continues, “Let’s sue them just to get it into court. It will humiliate them!” She answers, “You’ll be humiliated and you’ll get fired.”

Being fired and humiliated—we’re a long way from the Cola bears.

The spots are amazingly forthcoming. They manage to make fun of our litigious society—and of a process that generates so many brand extensions, we can’t tell them apart. Not to mention brand managers, office politics and corporate America in general. If you think about it, there’s even a seed of the “how stupid were we to do that whole New Coke twenty years ago?” embedded down deep in there.

It’s amazing that Coke would, as one of the marketing guys declares, “Put on the lawyer pants and walk down that path.”

The Web site also offers a “sue your friend” feature. If you notice that an acquaintance happens to have bought the same shoes or downloaded the same ringtone, you can send an official looking cease-and-desist letter.

At the very bottom, the letter alerts the recipient that “our lawyer has forced us to reveal” that it’s a fake.

At the same time, with all this meta-talk about fake and real, the brand has cool new black packaging and is being retargeted to young men who apparently won’t have anything to do with a “diet” drink. I, for one, take umbrage at calling Diet Coke a “mom drink.” (Now, Tab is a “mom drink.”) I think Coke Zero will also have a huge female audience, so making men the target seems counterproductive.

Maybe I can get a preliminary injunction.

Coke Zero

Agency: Crispin Porter + Bogusky

Chief creative officer: Alex Bogusky

VP/creative director: Dave Schiff

VP/interactive cd: Jeff Benjamin (integrated)

Associate cd: Alex Burnard

Art director: Dayoung Ewart

Copywriter: Erkki Izarra

Designers: Jiwon Lee, Charles Carlson (integrated)

Director of integrated production: Rupert Samuel

Integrated producers (broadcast): Matthew Anderson, Paul Gunnarson

Director: Fred Goss/Villains

Editorial: Cosmo Street

Executive integrated music producer: Bill Meadows