Is there any faker word now than "real"? That's because the term "reality" now stands for freakish TV programming brazenly manipulated by producers and casting agents. Although it seemed the so-non-verité programming was in burnout mode, Fox got 33.6 million people to watch American Idol last week—blockbuster ratings that topped last year's.
Coke, of course, has always been a major sponsor of AI, and it looks like the big red logoed cups that sat prominently on the judges' desks during the multi-city try-out phase have been upgraded from paper to plastic—far more dangerous for auditioners to hurl at Simon. But the mean judge notwithstanding, of all the shows in the category, on its face, American Idol seems somewhat benign: Singing talent is actually required, which is a far more elevating and less cynical setup than grouping D-list celebrities and sociopaths in a house in order to goad them into attacking or groping each other on camera.
Still, this two-hour "event" was so lower-than-Gong-Show shameless in its exploitation of people who were oblivious and/or mentally disturbed—and thus so painful to watch—that it seemed to defy the regular space/time continuum. Hey, you say, no one forced the talentless to try out. That's true. And then again, all of them felt they were meant to be stars, and born to be rich and famous, because there's now so much access to TV roles for the talent-free through reality programs.
Yet nothing prepared a viewer for the absolute car wreck that was the final seven minutes of the show, devoted to an 18-year-old girl named Mary Roach. From the way she danced in her pre-audition warmup, it was clear that she was unbalanced in every way. But the camera stayed on her through the entire audition, especially for the full contorted-face "voices in my head tell me" big finish. It was unbearable—not nearly as clueless and entertaining as William Hung, because Mary obviously needed immediate psychiatric help, and that's plain sad.
Now here's a twist: The only entertainment to be found at that time was "Girl Band," the brand spankin' new Coke commercial that ran in the final quarter. Smart, funny and appealing, it was everything the Mary Roach segment was not. Simply put, "Girl Band" is real life with a smarter voiceover.
Four different versions (and perhaps more) will roll out through the spring. They all document, in true docu-style (beautifully directed by Lance Acord), an actual girl band from Ithaca, N.Y., practicing in their actual basement, wearing their own clothing, and traveling in the real-life, ancient but groovy Volvo station wagon that they truly use to get to gigs, where they usually "open for the opening band" and "sell six CDs."
While the song they are working on (and creating a video for), "Life Is Pain," is the typical teen angsty parody of itself, there is a visceral exuberance and sense of mission among the band members that really connects. The video shots and pacing are great, and the language in the voiceover is dead-on and Gilmore Girls acute (and also delivered in a Gilmore Girls-like ratatat clip). My favorite part of the story line (each spot is a complete little narrative) is the summary dismissal of John, a loyal roadie who thinks he might become a love interest but is "sadly mistaken—but amps are heavy."
This is very much the girl version of the male-skateboarders spot from last summer (same fast-talking voiceover, equally entertaining and knowing). This time, there's a bit more Coke-based activity—the drummer blows on the bottle, there's a scene in a diner—but it's subtle enough. As for the change in tagline, from "Real" to "Make it real," that's the sort of thing that causes all kinds of corporate Sturm und Drang, while viewers hardly notice. I guess "Make it real" sounds realer, in the sense that you are making your own reality—you are your own cruel and shameless director.
Other new spots are rolling out as well. One involves a semi-sullen teen boy (the casting is amazing) looking in a refrigerator at a lone can of Coke as Dad asks if there's any left. He's about to lie but then thinks of all the dunderheaded things he's done (backing into the garage door, or learning "the subtle difference between D and R") and in the end offers it up. It's a similar setup to the Courtney Cox/David Arquette spot from last year, but it proves you don't need no stinkin celebrities to make a commercial that resonates.
Another spot, with a couple in a movie theater watching a period romance, goes for the complete Mars/Venus thing that beer commercials are only too happy to exploit. At the same time, we've all had the experience of finishing a Coke and having only ice and water left, which drips, and the Latino casting is inspired.
The only spot that registers "old Coke" values is one set, yes, on an inner-city basketball court. There's even a Mean Joe Green drinking moment. The setup is kinda hokey, but the casting and direction save it.
Obviously, what Coke needs to save itself is beyond the realm of a few TV spots. But within the "reality" of advertising, this works.
Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, New York
Kiev and Mike Viola
"Her Night Out"
"Nascar Fantastic Four"
Director, art director