Coca-Cola's new "Smile Back" out-of-home stunt (scroll down to see it) is cute and nicely done, and everyone everywhere will love it. But let's overthink it for a moment.
Coke is famously skilled at being able to "Open happiness," as its slogan goes, through innovative real-world stunts. These have ranged from overly generous vending machines to splittable cans and personalized bottles. The typical transaction is that Coke gives you something of obvious value—a free drink or a fun, surprising experience—and that thing makes you happy, sometimes infectiously so. That's an honest interaction. This new stunt, though—produced and crowdsourced with Victors & Spoils and MOFILM—is different. As the company explains in the YouTube description:
"Coca-Cola sent our people all over the world, from Jamaica to the United Kingdom to Pakistan and more, to simply smile at strangers—to see who would smile back. As we passed others on the street, on the bus or in the park, we gave a smile, held up smiley face posters or did a silly dance with a grin on our faces, all to prompt a little friendliness in the mundane. When someone smiled back, they received a free Coke or some other fun prize: everything from sunglasses to hats to bicycles."
So, instead of a product, first you get a smile—from someone who, regardless of how awesome they may seem, has been paid to smile at you. (This is sometimes called a Professional Smile, and is clearly of dubious value.) Then, you must respond positively to this pretend display of affection (bribe) to get the reward that you previously got for free. The transaction has changed—it's backwards. You agree to be made happy by something false in order to have the chance to be made happy by something true. (You might get punched in the nose, actually, if you tried this in New York City.)
That distinction may sound like B.S., but you can sense the difference. It's why Coke's security-camera spot was so good—it captured moments that couldn't have been more genuine. And it's why the "Smile Back" video (and the earlier huggable vending machine from Singapore, which had similar problems involving misplaced affection) feels more manufactured. For all the happiness on display here—and yes, not all of it is bogus—the spot lacks the purity of concept that makes the best Coke work sing.
Happiness is infectious, but this stunt might not leave everyone smiling.