Go on I dare you
in 1971 The New Seekers weren’t approached by Bill Backer (the creative director on the Coca-Cola account for McCann-Erickson) to write the theme tune for the latest Coca-Cola commercial, filmed atop an Italian mountain, The First United Chorus of the World and a young girl lip synching an ode to Julie Andrews. A chorus of hundreds of like-minded young adults, all aiming for the same harmony. A mass prayer session on the mount of Olives, pleading with someone above for a better future. I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.
Imagine that Bill had had the nerve to talk to John Lennon about using his catchy hit of the same year for his own catchy purposes. Imagine that the theme tune was Imagine. I wonder if you can.
I read a good book recently. It was the first piece of fiction I’d read in at least a year. The previous one was The Disaster Area, also by JG Ballard, a series of short stories loosely based on the futures of society. It had left such an impression on me that I went to the bookshop for another book by the same author, hoping to affirm some of my own childish views. For years I had been reading one sci-fi book after the other, slowly become a bit morose about the continuous dark implications about the future, getting further from the naievité of 1971. Still, Ballard is one author who seems to have an optimistic, be it sometimes twisted ideal of how the world may end up.
I read a good book recently. It was called War Fever by JG Ballard, and I’d wondered if the publishers had reprinted this bundle of short stories to coincide with the current atmosphere in the world. Perhaps it was a small attempt to heighten the awareness towards this growing tension and its implications for the future. Perhaps they were just trying to make a buck off the hype, like the Chinese vendors on Canal Street who sold plastic albums with real photos of the streets of Manhattan on the 11th of September. Show them to your friends, Pretend you were really there. After consulting the technical notes on the inside cover of War Fever, the conspiring facts built up in my mind were put to rest: the book was published in 1999.
The title track of War Fever runs as follows: imagine this. Beirut, at least 30 years in the future. The Civil war there will have been waged for 30 years between the Royalists the Republicans, the Nationalists, the Fundamentalists, the Christian Militia and the International Brigade. The rest of the world will loosely joined in if they like, and city will become a cordoned off for all free fight club. The arbitrator in Beirut will be the UN patrols, keeping the war inside the confines of the city, so as not to wake up the neighbours.''
The original cause of conflict will have long been forgotten, and won’t really matter, making side switching a daily occurence. The aim of the area was to fight, and it won’t really matter with whom you were fighting, as long as you do. The only media seen in the area will be covering the area itself, it will be a controlled zone. A sustained state of affairs: this is the way we live, this is how we are, this is part of life, this is something you see daily but that mustn’t affect you, let’s keep it that way. Let’s not get any funny ideas.
We are introduced to Ryan, the guy with the funny idea: "Nobody believes anything! The Royalists don’t want the King, the Nationalists secretly hope for partition, The Republicans want to do a deal with the Crown Prince of Monaco, the Christians are mostly atheists, and the Fundamentalists can’t agree on a single fundamental. We’re fighting and dying for nothing."
"So?" Louisa pointed with her brush to the UN observers by their post.
"That just leaves them. What do they believe in?"
"Peace. World harmony. An end to fighting everywhere."
"Then maybe you should join them."
"Yes... Maybe we should all join the UN. Yes, Louisa, everyone should wear the blue helmet."
And so a dream was born.
During the next days Ryan tried to explore this simple but revolutionary idea.’
Ballard takes over in the next fourteen pages to explore Ryan’s simple revolutionary tactics for him. Perhaps Ballard sees speaking out for the little man as his role in life.
Had Ballard left it at the simple idea, then there wouldn’t have been a story, and I wouldn’t have taken up this page to use the simplicity as an example to all of us. The facts are: Ballard does write and can elaborate. These are his ends and means for communicating. Had he been a fireman, and told his friends in the pub his brilliant idea for bringing world peace with blue helmets, they would have laughed at him, and got him to buy the next round. Admittedly, you have to use the right amount of words to speak to certain people. I don’t think that many firemen read JG Ballard, so he can get away with putting a naieve idea on paper and using a lot of big words for elaboration. I ask myself whether he needs to be such a storyteller, but he then reminds me of a friend of mine who is so romantic she can tell a story about a coach driver and have us all in stitches, even if we do know that her story is better than the truth. Romanticism is the key, or at least taking some time out to find the right words. Finding new ways of describing the things we take for granted or making unimportant ideas seem like world beaters.
Elaborating on a theme can have adverse results. When you take pleasure in choosing words to take up people’s time, they might only offer you a glance over the page, missing the subtle connections you make to illustrate a point. Most people only see what they see, black or white, and don’t stop to inspect the material you fold or how you stitch it together.
Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons packages often remind me of supermarket own brands. The age old question rises as to whether whiteness is lowly or luxurious, funny or deadly serious. In this sense whiteness is the ultimate mediator: undemanding, unassertive, modest, informative, economical, concentrated. All the frills and surplus are cut out to show you that the product inside the white box is good at being just that: a modest product. You don’t need to tell people it’s good. They know it is. In Kawakubo’s case, her reputation is also the key to her modesty. The cheap supermarket has a reputation for being just that: a place to spend money on food you need without the thrills. You know they wouldn’t sell you shit, it’s more than their money’s worth. The most critical customer is the poorest when it comes to necessities. All they need to know what is in their white boxes:
11/4 cup flour
1 tbsp. sugar
1/4 tsp. salt
1 beaten egg
1 cup milk
Before fasting for Lent, religious fanatics, considered normal until recently, would empty their kitchen cupboard of all of it’s ingredients and throw them together. Whatever they found in the kitchen cupboard, how ever they threw it together, they always ended up with the same result: pancakes.
After gorging themselves and washing up, they consequently shut the kitchen cupboard, tidied away the plates and went to bed and got up again for 40 days on the trot. They followed by example and fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. The lack of nourishment would probably make you believe you were in the wilderness, as opposed to Jesus who really was. No wonder he started talking to the devil about flying and getting blood out of stones.
Think wonderous thoughts.
Eat as little as possible.
Do not consume more than the minimum.
Live, fast, die old.
Had you noticed that one of the products mentioned above need marketing? None of them have to be aimed at you, they know you need them, whatever happens. These products have their own monopolies or oligarchies. Try telling me your salt is better than mine (although some Swiss people do try this on me). The man who invented salt was a genius, the man who sold it is prosperous. Have you ever seen an advertisement for salt? What is there to say about salt? Salt doesn’t have to say anything. Salt is there. Modest. Like Rei Kawakubo. Salt’s reputation precedes it. We all know what salt does to your food. We are informed and salt functions.
More than seventy years ago, Coca-Cola decided to stop talking about their product. I think they assumed that people knew by then what Coca-Cola was and what it could do for you physically. The link between ingredients and bodily reactions became suspect. It was no longer a Ultimate Selling Property, a tool much needed (and therefore invented) by marketeers to keep themselves and their clients guessing as to what their product really does for you. In 1929, Archie Lee of the St. Louis D’Arcy agency invented something timeless, something every creative tries to do at least once in his lifetime. After forty days of racking his brains for ideas, Archie condensed his ideas into four words:
The Pause that Refreshes
D’Arcy decided that Coca-Cola should make the decision to step away from talking about themselves and start talking about you and me. Affirm that we wanted to identify with them, and that they had become part of our lives. No additional claim was made above deliciousness or refreshment, but we started reading more into the imagery behind the brand. Coca-Cola formed the images on which we modelled ourselves, and we formed the world that inspired these images. Mutual feeding, like birds on buffaloes and worms on sharks. A Coca-Cola president once said: We’ve always tried to be decent in our advertising. We’ve tried to practise what I guess they call the soft sell. We never make claims. We’ve tried to do in our advertising what we try to do with our people inside and outside the company – to be liked.
Coca-Cola has always held our hands and guided us along Marketing Street. Pausing to window shop. Turning the unrealistic behind the glass into reality. Putting the unobtainable into everyone’s reach. Showing us places we’ll never really go to. They’ve shown us the first helicopters, they have taken us into space, they invited filmstars round to have a drink with us, they introduced us to Santa Claus, they gave us refreshment while we were in the desert fighting the enemy, they got Presidents to place them next to the lips we should read. They went everywhere first, and they came back and told us elaborately simplified stories about where they’d been and how much good it did them, and that they should do that more often.
The Pause that Refreshes was a milestone, a turning point, a crossroads. Number One, Marketing Street. The point when they realised that they were unmissable in our lives, and needn’t tell us what they had done for us lately. They became the salt of the earth, but they didn’t realise it. They convinced themselves that, being us, they had to convince us that they had to be modest about this fact. You can’t go around saying you’re the best. Well you can, but by then you’ve probably come too far and have completely lost it. Either regressing into Alzheimers or covering tracks like an academic/scientist by speaking in abstract truths.
''Look up America, Coke is it: the real thing. You can’t beat the real thing!
Taste it all. Always.''
Like an academic, your reputation precedes you. You needn’t say a word, because your work is so widespread, you are permitted to fall into loops and repeat yourself. Like a scientist, you are allowed to speak in abstract truths and invent hypotheses that bear no relation to the physical world. You invent new words for the sake of having something to talk about or having a new reference. It’s quite romantic actually. I think some artists have a better grip on the physical world than you do. You are paying large amounts of money for others to come up with new ways of telling us something we already know. Like a scientist, you must justify your existence. Otherwise you are out of a job. So you keep adding more abstractions onto the world you have been constructing in your head since the last time you took a pause.
Chairman, Board of Directors,
and Chief Executive Officer,
The Coca-Cola Company
Dear Mr Daft,
Please can you send your advertising
agency on holiday for a while?
Please can you take away all signs and
t-shirts and umbrellas and flags and
bottle openers and posters and caps
and trays and records and visors and
postcards and trashcans?
I’d like to see Coca Cola only on
the shelf, in the shops or in the fridge.
I think CocaCola is like flour, sugar,
salt, eggs and milk.
They also sell themselves.
Reading this back, it sounds like a letter to Santa Claus. As if it was written by a child of 6 to an older and wiser man. Leaving out all the words because you know he knows how to fill them in in adult speak, and you don’t yet. Knowing that adults waste a lot of space to show how clever they are, and how much an effort it was to think up the same idea a six year old could have had. The trouble with adults is that they don’t know how to just do things any more. They immediatley get wound up about the fact that just doing it isn’t a simple as that, because you have to deal with millions of other people and get them to do what you think is right. The trouble with simple ideas is that adults have to fight the hardest for them. People start talking about the faliure of democracy and the naivité of Marx. Adults see big incs., as huge monsters that you have to talk to for years before they even notice you.
I think Doug Daft can think for himself, and if he puts 2 and 2 together, he will realise that it could be a good idea to turn back time to before 1929. Get back to the product. Talk about Coke in physical terms. Give people some real information. Get back into the high school science mode and find out some solid truths about the drink.
Once you take away the abstract truths, you are left with just the product. Being Coca-Cola, this would be the most courageous step they could take towards the future of Coca-Cola. The next block on Marketing Street. Again I think it’s safe to say that Coca-Cola is a human necessity, like salt.
People will go back to a physical identification with Coca-Cola. The only time they are confronted with it is when they are in front of that shelf, reaching out to make that choice. Choice based on what they really want. This being the key, if you trust people to think for themselves, can you be sure they will follow your predictions? All you can do use your imagination. Do they like Coke or do they like Pepsi? Old fashioned testing based on plain old scientific truths. Everyone I know prefers Coca-Cola to Pepsi, yet no-one can tell me why. The best proof is trusting someone to make a choice. It’s like McCann-Eriksonn trusting you that a holiday is the best thing you could do.
The synonimity between Coke and marketing being as it is, the pause that refreshes would obviously be documented for the future, thus creating a classic, if the documentation is widespread enough, and it will be. Coca-Cola Inc. stops advertising and merchandising. Imagine.
Pepsi will follow suit and create their own pause that refreshes. They have no other choice.They know that this is the right thing to do. There can be only one who sets the example and dares to go into the Wilderness for such a long time. People will remember you for it even if you’re not around any more. People will write about you, all will follow your example. Oh go on.