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In perfect harmony

12 May 2017

Controlled humiliation: on Tuesday, Marketing: Hacking the unconscious (Radio 4, weekdays) examined the success of the ALS ice bucket challenge

Controlled humiliation: on Tuesday, Marketing: Hacking the unconscious (Radio 4, weekdays) examined the success of the ALS ice bucket challenge

IT COULD have been a disaster: the production ran massively over budget; the director was sacked; and there was a helicopter crash on set. But, instead, the shoot for the 1971 Coca-Cola advert has become a case-study in marketing genius.

Cashing in on a hippie ethic of transglobal love, the ad depicts young and old of every nation gathering to sing “I want to teach the world to sing”, and sharing a bottle of fizzy pop. It was, as stated in Marketing: Hacking the unconscious (Radio 4, weekdays), a turning-point in advertising history.

In the words of the ad executive Steve Henry, it was the moment that “the Serpent” invaded “the Garden of Eden”; although, being an ad executive, he did not interpret this as being “necessarily a bad thing”.

The story of the advert’s conception similarly throws light on the way an ad-man’s mind works. Holed up in Shannon Airport because of fog, Bill Backer noticed how passengers were bonding over a bottle of Coca-Cola. You can imagine how the dollar signs rolled on to his eyeballs with a cartoonish “ker-ching!”

Yet this kind of manipulation does not work all the time. Take Pepsi’s recent attempt in the United States to turn diversity politics into a promotional tool by depicting a potentially incendiary demo placated by giving a bottle of you-know-what. The ad bombed. Marketing of this kind operates at the boundaries of our credulity and goodwill: cross over, and the uplifting becomes sententious.

Tuesday’s marketing case-study was a case in point. There are plenty of reasons to mistrust the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: the craze that encouraged us all to douse ourselves in freezing water for charity (News, 5 September 2014). At its height, in late 2014 and early 2015, there were hundreds of celebrities queuing up for this rite of controlled humiliation. It was “slacktivism”, in the opinion of many, and supported by research suggesting that people who make such dramatic displays of their altruism are less likely to reach into their pockets.

But you cannot argue with $200-million’s-worth of revenue for motor neurone disease; and perhaps we should stop worrying so much about from whence this apparent altruism derives.

We hardly need to be reminded that social media does bad stuff as well as some good. But, even then, the story told in Eye of the Storm (Radio 5 Live, Thursday of last week) is fascinating for its melodrama. In 2012, the Australian DJ Mel Greig and her colleague put a prank phone-call through to a London hospital, purporting to be the Queen and Prince Charles, enquiring after the health of the Duchess of Cambridge.

Incredibly, they were put through, and the subsequent two-minute conversation with the Duchess’s private nurse was regarded as a huge and hilarious radio coup — until, two days later, the nurse whose mistake it was, Jacintha Saldanha, committed suicide.

The shame was now all Greig’s, and she discovered only too soon that the same medium that might enable you to shower in buckets of cold water may also cover you in excrement.

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