Shortly after the fortieth anniversary of its hijacking hippie culture to promote a carbonated beverage, Coca-Cola launched a new campaign designed to sort-of-literally buy the world a Coke. Thanks to smartphones, Google and a series of specially designed and strategically deployed vending machines, Coca-Cola enthusiasts in select world locations would be able to purchase a can of the stuff and gift it to a foreign stranger at the chosen destination. Each gift could be accompanied by a message, and the special vending machines were engineered to record the surprised reaction of the recipients, as well as deliver a message of thanks in return. As the promotional video for the campaign solemnly concluded:
Today’s technology allows us to make good on a promise Coca-Cola made over 40 years ago, and lets users ‘Buy the World a Coke’ from the palm of their hand.If the original hilltop ad was the multinational appropriating counterculture, this new one is the multinational posing as world superpower with global strike capability, its drone soda dispensers able to hit their target with pinpoint accuracy at the speed at which the internet thinks. Google was the ideal partner for such a project, as its fanatical dedication to superimposing layers upon layers of maps over every last inhabited inch of the planet matches perfectly Coca-Cola’s famous desire and capacity to reach the most remote corners of the world.
At the same time as this gimmick was being promoted amongst the relatively select few (Project Re: Brief wasn’t paired with any major media campaign), Coca-Cola Oceania was busy pursuing another kind of personal association with the company’s iconic product. Its Share a Coke campaign announced itself via the appearance on store shelves of cans and bottles of Coke imprinted with a range of common names. The genius of it is that you knew from the start what it was about, and even if you didn’t, if you happened to have a child of a certain age (shall we say: somewhat lower than the company’s stated young adult target) they would soon let you know: it made the world’s most common, most rigidly mass produced, most identical-to-itself product on Earth suddenly exciting and unique. You almost had to applaud the cynicism of the operation: how it manipulated the base human instinct, as old as language, to perceive magical, shamanic qualities in the sounds or symbols that people use to mean you.
In Australia the campaign reportedly resulted in a 4% increase in sales, making it an extraordinary success. But it was a parody of society, on those grocery store shelves: a statistical construct generated from a table of the 150 most common names in the birth register, as false and hollow as the idea that there could be a meaningful connection between the product and its customers. Coca-Cola would have us believe that people took the concept further than the immediate impulse to buy and consume, attaching great emotional significance to randomly encountering one’s name, or that of a relative or friend, whilst grocery shopping. Even using a bottle of Coke to declare one’s undying love. (Shaun and Laura, if you really exist: I wish you every happiness.)
As for the less commonly named, they could order their special bottle online, or – when the campaign migrated to the UK, this year – participate in the special Share a Coke tour and get their name printed on a label on the spot. The choice of names here is larger, but still the company is not quite ready to print any old thing on one of its labels, so if your first name is particularly uncommon you might have to bring proof of identity:
Both our special Share a Coke vending machines and in-store kiosks are pre-populated with thousands of popular names. If our printing machines don’t automatically recognise the name you have requested, you may be asked to show ID to one of our brand ambassadors, such as a driving license, utility bill or passport.Or your name could be Mohammed, in which case it won’t appear on a Coke label in any store in Sweden, in spite of being common enough to qualify, because – and I’m not making this up – the company believes that ‘it is less offensive to not have that name included in the campaign, than having it on a product that is so tightly associated with the United States.’
This also applies if you are requesting a friend’s name, so if you think it might not be in our database, please try to bring along one of these items. If you don’t have ID, in some circumstances we may ask you to select a different name.
One welcomes such absurdities and contradictions: anything to make the plan less smooth, its capture mechanism less efficient. And then there are the glitches. If I use the online app I can print any name I want. I send a virtual Coke to my friend Stalin Johnson.
There is a whiff, the faintest aroma of totalitarianism in the mega-corporation’s desire to pursue such an intimate personal connection with its customer base – a population so large as to virtually encompass everyone – and arbitrarily exclude some undesired or suspicious individuals. So as the world’s single largest merchant of high-fructose corn syrup joins the fight against obesity and type-2 diabetes, I still see a bitterest kind of irony in that other thing. That marketing on a global scale should work so well, so effortlessly, while economics and politics fail. That still now, forty years on, there are people who can utter the phrase ‘I want to buy the world a Coke’ with a straight face, and make more money than the bottom half of all nations.
The progressive promise of a connected world is that we might find new ways to communicate with one another and discover new paths to solidarity and political action on a global scale. In the meantime, we can wave our smartphones in front of a fridge and send a Coke to some guy in Brazil.