The older a product is, the more it is a commodity, and the fewer objectively discernible qualities or features it has, the more the advertiser is forced to construct a fictional “grand narrative” to sell you a product. They have to tell a story about the world, and place the product within that world in a way that is conspicuous and positive but also realistic (but not real). The less of a product there is (the less “there” there is there), the more important the brand is, and consequently the more important the grand narrative.
Since the rise of television as the cultural dominant, a few brands have emerged as accomplished authors of American business’s grandest narratives
The grandest of the grand narratives come from Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is just carbonated sugary water, after all, so there is very little “there” there. And Diet Coke is even less, lacking the sugar. So to get people consuming something that is basically nothing, they need to tell a very compelling story.
So let’s play a game. Below is a 60-second spot advertising Diet Coke that began running in March 2011 to coincide with the launch of their new branding campaign “Stay Extraordinary.”
Let’s pretend it isn’t a commercial. Instead, let’s pretend it’s a film, a work of propaganda, directed by the likes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, or David Lynch. A film where there is often more meaning in symbols, cinematography and imagery than in text or dialogue.
In short, pretend this is a coded message. Your mission is to break the code.
Watch the commercial like you were a CIA analyst, psychoanalyst, or literary theorist. Consider the composition within the frame, the choices of costume and props, their sequence, their synchronization with music, etc.
What parts of the code can you break? What are the symbols, and what do they represent? What story is Coca-Cola is telling? Is it a true story, partially true, or not at all true? Do you like the story, or parts of it? Why is the slogan Stay Extraordinary, and not Be extraordinary? Who is Coca-Cola talking to? In reality, what is Diet Coke? Why do people drink it? Why do they think they drink it?
Here are some avenues of attack:
What are men doing in the commercial? What are the women doing? What are their jobs? How old are they? How do you know any of this? What did you see in the images that led you to these conclusions?
How are various ethnicity represented? Does the use of an actor of a particular ethnicity reinforce the message that character’s vignette is intended to send? Look for ethnic juxtaposition. What message does it send? If the ethnicities were reversed, does that send a different message?
Are the characters young or old? Is their juxtaposition of ages? What message would be sent if those ages were reversed? What else would have to change?
What kinds of relationships are on display, including romantic, professional, family. In these relationships, who is portrayed most positively? Who is consuming the product?
What role does technology play in the narrative? What conclusions or assumptions do you make (do they want you to make) about the owner of the phone based on the brand of the phone?
What do you conclude about people based on their attire? What message do the clothing, makeup and hairstyle send? Only one character is shot in extreme close-up (where there face is larger than the frame)? Which character is this? What is notable about him in this shot?
Work and Play
Characters are working and playing in the ad. What kind of work are they doing? What is the character’s position in that hierarchy? What jobs are absent? What about the character at the beginning and the end of the ad, are they working or playing? Both? What is implied, and how is that implication made visually and symbolically?
Let’s see what we can come up with. If you like doing this kind of thing, we can make it a recurring feature.