Critique: Muddy Waters

In the immortal words of Buffalo Springfield: There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear.

This new Dasani campaign is hard to figure. It’s fast and gritty, offputting and disruptive, right down to the unexpected and cloying twist at the end of each of the three spots. It comes from Berlin Cameron/ Red Cell, an agency that has a deservedly great creative reputation. So perhaps there is something larger going on here that I just can’t quite fathom.

For starters, I do get the counterintuitive, and probably smart, strategy. We’ve all seen enough of the natural, clean, pure positioning for bottled water to last a lifetime; the twentysomething and early 30s kids who are the targets for the stuff today were weaned on little baby Perrier and Evian bottles. So breaking out of that typical health-club imagery does provide distinctiveness for the brand. It’s the sophisticated, anti-Birkenstock water!

Given that, it makes sense that the first new spot, “Excitement,” shows a young female Dasani drinker not in a yoga pose or hiking but rather enjoying a frenetic night of New York City clubbing. But here’s the problem with this breakthrough entertainment positioning: Ever since the seminal debut of the Charlie Girl some 30 years ago (she was out for a night on the town by herself, dressed in—here’s the gasp part—a pantsuit), women have been seen similarly out and about in commercials for shampoo, soft drinks, jeans, beer, “ice” beverages, you name it. Ironically, by abandoning the limited and stilted positioning of typical bottled-water spots, Dasani has adopted some of the most overused imagery of all, the Sex and the City-fication of women’s culture.

So the idea is not exactly fresh (even if the jerky, hyperfast and gritty video look of the spot, and its ominous house music, drowns out the glamour aspect). But putting our Dasani drinker in the milieu of the club also leads to unintended trouble. One young woman, a perfect target, watched the spot and said, “Ew, I wouldn’t go near anyone drinking water in a club—it means they’re on ecstasy.”

Granted, the spot is shot in a unique way, in which the water drinker/model/actress is the camera and we don’t see her but feel her wordless, visceral experience as she leaves one club, gets on a motorcycle with her date to go to another and later jumps into a cab with him. Perhaps to clean up any dirty overtones (that’s it: Dasani, the new dirty water!), our Dasani drinker then goes home, gets a fresh blue-labeled bottle out of her stainless-steel fridge, drops her clothing on the floor and hops into bed, next to a big lump under the covers. The lump turns out to be an enormous stuffed teddy bear, and the only time the blond, blue-eyed model’s face is revealed fully is when she laughs and smiles and cuddles her furry friend.

Yikes! It’s creepy, not cute, and here are but a few of the unappealing questions conjured up by the trick ending: Is it an ad for celibacy or the “reborn virgin” movement? Does the new tagline, “Can’t live without Dasani”—preceded by “Can’t live without excitement” as she hugs her inamorata—mean you can, rather, live without a man? Then again (and this is a truly unfortunate possibility, so let’s tread delicately), is she a “plushie”? That would be an adult who has “personal feelings” for plush stuffed animals (not that there’s anything wrong with that), as chronicled in Vanity Fair last year.

Whatever. I don’t think Coca-Cola, by way of Dasani, wants to go there. But the second spot, “Elevator Kissing,” is also chockablock with teasy sexual references, only to get cutened up at the end. A sexy couple of color (points for diversity there) enter an elevator, and they’re captured on its video camera as she holds a Dasani bottle and suddenly jumps all over him, pouring the stuff into his open mouth, opening his shirt, etc. Again, this might be interesting as water imagery—if we hadn’t already seen the hot-sex-in-the-elevator scenario in spots for jeans, beer, malt liquor, detergent, etc. The idea has become such a cliché that a spot for Axe deodorant uses it as the basis of a joke.

Our sex fiends straighten up, leave the elevator and walk into the lobby of an apartment building, where the doorman greets them with, “Well, good evening, Mr. and Mrs. Grogan.” So a bottle of Dasani is even better than Dr. Phil in jump-starting a marriage!

The third spot, “Adventure,” is the weakest. It shows a couple madly motorbiking out of a city to a tropical beach. Huh? I thought the whole idea was to stay away from glistening water and sun.

Maybe being puzzled is the point. Maybe it will work globally, since it’s so urgently visual and wordless. Overall, though, this is about as unreal as it gets.