SBJ/October 8 - 14, 2001/Marketingsponsorship

Coke’s Ripken ad has all the ingredients, lacks the fizz

It just doesn't fit. Take one of the most challenging, emotional periods in the history of our country, add one of the most beloved and archetypically American brands, plus a revered sports hero who is playing out the end of his single-team career with the honor and dignity that has exemplified his entire tenure as a pro and, finally, the Great American Pastime. All the pieces are in place for one of the most powerful, resonant TV commercials in recent years.

Coca-Cola                      
Client: The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta
Chief marketing officer: Steve Jones
Senior vice president, consumer marketing, Coca-Cola North America: Jan Hall
Senior brand manager: Monique Acevedo
Agency: McCann-Erickson, New York
Creative director: Nina DiSesa
Copywriter: Dave Moore
Art director: Tom Parr
Account managers: Eric Keshin, William Grogan, Matt Weiss, Lindsay Sherman, Andrew Weisselberg
Producers: Pat Zadok, Jeff Fischer
Production company: Gartner
Director: James Gartner
Editors: Lost Planet, Adam Schwartz
Sound design: C5, Eugene Garrity
Music: Elias

So why is the new Coca-Cola TV commercial honoring the retirement of Cal Ripken Jr. only marginally successful?

In a word: boring.

The spot captures Ripken looking around an empty Camden Yards, à la Roy Hobbs, hearing ghostly broadcast descriptions of career highlights as he downs a signature "contour bottle" of Coke. His farewell moment is interrupted by a young female voice: "Dad, ready to go?"

Cal pauses dramatically and responds, "Yeah," as he and his 11-year-old daughter, Rachel, walk off the field together to a swirl of dramatic music and a superimposed Coca-Cola logo. (Ironically, the screenplay to "The Natural," from which this commercial liberally borrows, was written by Phil Dusenberry, an executive at the agency BBDO who has probably supervised or written more Pepsi commercials than anyone else alive.)

The obvious template for the commercial is the now decades-old Coke spot featuring "Mean" Joe Greene. In that spot, Greene, then the great defensive intimidator for the Pittsburgh Steelers, showed us his tender (and his thirsty) side when he traded his game jersey to a young fan for the ice-cold Coke Greene needed to satisfy a game-day thirst.

The magic of that spot stemmed from the persona of the athlete, the emotion of an engaging story line and the product as the real hero — the enabler that allowed a kid to connect with his hero and that hero to quench his nasty thirst.

The Ripken spot has none of those elements. Given the set-up, Ripken could just as easily have been rubbing Bengay on his thigh or chomping Cracker Jack and communicated the same amount of product relevance.

Part of it is, there's no "Mean Joe," a player from an era before 24/7 media scrutiny and all-pervasive sports coverage. Greene was a guy we knew only as being really, well, mean. It took a commercial to humanize him. With Ripken, we get Cal. Not "Mean Cal" or "Air Cal," just "Cal": a great player we've seen thousands of times; a player everybody knew would show up every day and perform capably.

That doesn't mean that Ripken isn't a certain future hall of famer. It just means that there's none of the inherent drama or intrinsic use of the brand being advertised that made the 1979 Mean Joe spot one of the greatest in advertising history.

Coke's advertising in recent years has struggled to find a voice. From the glory days of the late '80s and early '90s, when the "Always Coca-Cola" jingle rang true across a whole slew of Hollywood-generated, Hollywood-worthy story lines, Coke has run through several flawed campaigns, including a ghastly approach where friends or family members who didn't serve Coke were insulted by their guests.

The latest Coke campaign from longtime agency McCann-Erickson, tagged "Life tastes good," seems to find firmer footing. While the commercials are somewhat timid, they at least say the right things about the brand, and if better developed might be able to recapture some of the magic Coca-Cola has lost in the past few years. The Ripken spot is more of a one-off special, outside the parameters of the main approach, and is not tagged with the brand's flagship campaign slogan.

The Ripken commercial, which was scheduled to launch almost concurrently with the tragic events of Sept. 11, was delayed briefly as Coke pulled its advertising.

It premiered on the stadium screens at Camden Yards on Sept. 22 with Coke providing a significant donation to disaster relief. A terrific gesture by the sponsor.

James H. Harris (jim@thoughtstep.com) is CEO of Chicago-based strategic marketing consultancy ThoughtStep Inc.

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