Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Back in the ’80s, Jovan Musk asked, “What is sexy?” The response was literal: pictures of skin on skin, set to throbbing music.

Last month, Pepsi answered the same question in a breakout production number starring Britney Spears. The spot could have come off the same conveyor belt used in the ad. It mirrored the Britney persona—manufactured, eye-pleasing and empty. True to form, she and Pepsi have it both ways. Head shots of Britney as a sweet-faced, smiling ingénue intercut with major moments of midriff and crotch bumping.

In one version, Bob Dole says, “Easy, boy” to his excited dog. The Viagra people went to excruciating lengths to make him seem dignified; for Pepsi, he mascots as Mr. Penis. And in case hormonally charged teen boys weren’t teased enough, the spot ends with a neon Pepsi bottle blowing its cap. Was it good for you?

Word has it that Britney nemesis Christina Aguilera has signed with Coke. That work has yet to surface. But Coke has released a new campaign for diet Coke that attempts the impossible: embody modern sexiness. To Wieden + Kennedy’s credit, the ads avoid the obvious.

The underlying strength of the campaign is its subtle use of celeb voiceovers. These are beautifully shot narratives delivered by the never- identified Ed Burns, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey and Renee Zelwegger. (One with Ashley Judd is in the pipeline; the Affleck spot, in which he waxes poetic about his girlfriend’s underwear, has yet to appear. The McConaughey ad, because he muses on the beauty of pregnancy, may never run due to health concerns about ingesting caffeine and aspartame while pregnant.)

By far, the Zelwegger spot is best. It’s as layered and rich as her voice, and exudes a self-possessed energy. We see a young woman staring out her loft window at a guy across the way. “I watch this guy in his bathroom when he’s getting ready for work,” she says. Cut to the guy, who apparently has a public shower. We see him brushing, flossing and screaming the lyrics to Cheap Tricks’ “I Want You to Want Me.” “He’s really not my type,” she says, building tension between the smart/dumb dialectic. “He flosses too much.”

Meanwhile, the light on this guy’s building echoes Edward Hopper, and the space, divided in grids, suggests Mondrian. “But you can’t rule out a guy who knows all the lyrics to one of the greatest songs of all time,” she adds.

This spot is light years ahead of the one in which secretaries gawked at a beefy construction worker (Lucky Vanous). Yet the ogling ad was one of Coke’s all-time hits. And that might be the problem with the insightful, delicate approach here.

The Affleck-inflected spot, about his girlfriend’s underwear, is as realistic as the one voiced by Burns, in which a guy causes his girlfriend to fall in the mud and she laughs. (As opposed to, “I just broke my coccyx!”)

I love the intimacies with women these cool men revere. The cognitive dissonance here is that Coke was always a little behind the curve. These cinematic spots are ahead, using the drink as “that certain something,” a beautifully lit, subtle accessory to a quirky but meaningful life. If only such moments were the real thing.