Monday, April 23, 2007

American idolatry.


I just hate jumping on bandwagons, but this one was irresistible.

If brands and their hijinks amuse you even a little, then there is no way you’ve avoided the Jesus-drinking-a-Coke kerfuffle that erupted earlier this month. The story goes like this: An Italian film called “7 Kilometers From Jerusalem” was to have its debut on Easter weekend. In this film, a modern-day Jesus is shown drinking a Coke given to him by the film’s protagonist, a disenfranchised ad guy. (Excuse me while I reset my irony meter). The Coca Cola Company takes umbrage at this, and parachutes a battalion of lawyers into Italy to threaten tort mayhem if the film is shown with the scene intact. They succeed in terrifying the producers, the film is withdrawn and, last I heard, will be edited to eliminate the scene. And here, from a Coke spokesperson, is the statement that got my Irish up:

“We are not interested in this kind of product placement.”

Product placement!? Who in the blue blazes do these people think they are? Sorry, Hoss, but that’s not product placement. That’s a movie. Art. It’s none of your business.

There are three things wrong with this, it seems to me. First, it’s arrogant bullying. You want to control who in the public realm, fictionally or otherwise, is seen drinking your product? Geez, I’m glad you weren’t in the neighbourhood for my wedding. I’m sure there were a few Coke drinkers there you wouldn’t have approved of. And no, you can’t see the pictures.

Second, it’s rank hypocrisy. For 115 years, this brand has done everything it could think of to insinuate itself into American and then global culture so that it’s as comfortably familiar and ubiquitous as air. That humanity bought your pitch and made you its own means you have to tolerate what they do with it as long as there isn’t any misrepresentation involved. It’s not just yours anymore. It’s also ours. You can’t stuff that genie back into your shape-trademarked bottle, sport.

Finally, I’m left scratching my head over what all this tells us about Coke’s values as a brand. I mean, they let Bill Gates drink it publicly, in a commercial no less. And they let Simon Cowell drink it publicly. And they allowed the Bushmen of the Kalahari to cavort with the bottle, at least, in that movie. A bottle, it should be noted, that started off as litter before it wrought havoc in the tribe, eventually getting hurled off the edge of the world because it was an “evil thing”. This, you were fine with. But a movie Jesus? Um, no, sorry. That’s going too far, no matter what the Vatican thinks.

I can’t figure it out. But I do know three things: I know that the line between benevolent megabrand and evil empire is razor thin. Mr. Gates could have told you that, Coke. I know that the Second Commandment got broken, here. (I'm just not sure whose).

And I know that you’re going to be kicking yourself if Jesus switches to Pepsi.