Opinion: Coke ‘Draws’ Up Winning Formula

Angry grandmas, dorky surfers and a basketball player sticking a cold soda can under his armpit were just some of the ads that appeared during the bad old days of Coke advertising.

For a span of nearly seven years, Coke struggled to find its voice. CEOs Douglas Daft and then Neville Isdell made bold proclamations to crowded ballrooms that Coke would return to its roots of creating “iconic advertising.”

Still the revolving door that seemed to have been installed in its marketing department in Atlanta made it impossible for the brand to establish any consistency. Executives with oversized egos came and went as did the ad agencies with which they aligned themselves. But, perhaps the biggest obstacle was Coke’s prior success. The “Hilltop” and Mean Joe Greene ads are a lot to live up to.

For years, they tried to tell us “Life Tastes Good” that Coke was “Real.” Only the ads never felt real. They showed young adults having fun in a way that only existed in advertising. Among the low points were a group of dorky kids attempting to surf for the first time which seemed oddly dry like a life insurance commercial. Another as showed some teens having what appeared to be a rave in the woods. One of the partiers runs off into the darkness as if on some other kind of Coke. And, then a rather Budweiser-ish spot hit the airwaves where a guy ices down with a cold can of Coke after playing basketball. He sticks it under his armpit and then his friend drinks it. Once Coke’s powerful board members saw it, they demanded it pulled immediately.

Today, the brand has hit its stride by relying increasingly on eye candy animation. It began with its Grand Theft Auto spoof “Video game” which was said to have been a battle to get on the airwaves because some of the older executives didn’t necessarily get it. Then, the Charlie Brown Thanksgiving Day parade ad and series of “Happiness Factory” spots (which show a Tim Burton-ish world that lives within Coke vending machines) sealed the deal. Relying on fun and fantasy mixed with cultural relevance proved to be Coke’s new secret formula.

Viewers will be treated to more of the same during the Super Bowl this year. On Feb. 1, instead of “Video game” we have “Avatar.” In the ad, a man is confronted by a crowd suddenly turning into World of Warcraft-type computer avatars. Then a nasty troll morphs into a cute woman once she and the young man both reach for a Coke at a dinner.

“Heist” is a visually beautiful ad, in which insects team up to steal a napping man’s Coke. The snippet where he awakes to grab his soda and it disappears in a flurry of butterflies is particularly inspired. Although, I’m not sure beer-swilling sports fan may appreciate it, it is surely the type of ad that will end up on a highlight reel for years to come.

Both ads succeed because they are easy on the eyes and fun to watch. Most of all they succeed because Coke is no longer trying to illustrate popular culture using bad scripts and forced situations. Rather they are weaving themselves into the fabric of popular culture by using illustrations.