Mark Simpson on the sweet fetishism of Coca Cola’s ‘delightfully slutty soda ad’
How much Coca Cola ads have changed since the famous singalong, smiley, folksy, innocence of the famous 1971 commercial! How much the world has changed. If it were remade today you’d be forgiven for thinking that song would have to be retitled: ‘I’d Like to Teach the World to Perve (In Perfect Harmony)’.
‘Pool Boy’, the latest ad in Coca Cola’s current ‘Taste the Feeling’ campaign, has prompted a veritable geyser of complimentary press for its ‘gay-friendliness’. But there’s quite a bit more going on than just ‘gay friendliness’ in this delightfully slutty soda commercial (and Coca Cola have anyway done ‘gay friendly’ before).
So I think it’s worth undressing it. Even more.
Central to understanding what’s going on here is grasping, firmly, yet caressingly, that this is a Diet Coke ad – albeit without Diet Coke (though it does feature, briefly, a Coca Cola Light – a name used for Diet Coke in many markets). All the elements of the classic Diet Coke ads are here. The Hunk toils in the heat, his muscular, ripped body glistening, all drunk in thirstily by women, the camera, and the viewers.
Diet Coke aimed until now at women (apparently only women dieted in the past), effectively identified itself in the Chippendale/Take That 1990s with the emergence of active, assertive, voyeuristic female sexuality and passive, exhibitionistic male sexuality. This was updated and ‘refreshed’ a few years ago with ‘The Gardner’. In it a group of young, slim, attractive women, sitting on a small hill in a park, perve over a young, fit, attractive man cutting the grass below them, offering him a sabotaged can of Diet Coke that ejaculates all over him when opened, ‘forcing’ him to take his shirt off.
Coke are reportedly now taking a ‘one brand’ approach to their products, and ‘Pool Boy’ is in effect a globally-targeted (hence no dialogue) ‘Diet Coke’ ad for Coca Cola products in general – in which the ante is even further ‘upped’. In ‘Pool Boy’ the porno promo aesthetic of ‘The Gardner’ is still very much present and erect, but the ‘Ladies’ voyeuring are a teen girl and her mother. And her teen brother.
The definition of ‘Diet Coke Ladies’ has now been widened to include The Gays. Who of course were always part of the unspoken audience anyway. After all, Diet Coke ads have long been using the tropes of gay porn to sell product to women, and the phenomenon of straight women and gay best friends sharing their appreciation of – and disappointment with – men is widely established now.
‘Pool Boy’ begins with the camera lingering over The Hunk, his shredded, smooth body shiny with sweat and Baby Oil, flashing out of his unbuttoned uniform – as he works his big pole in a suburban American swimming pool under the blazing American sun. He’s being admired out of the window by a pretty, skinny teen girl, who is eagerly distracted from her studies – her head propped up daintily on her fingertips, smiling broadly.
Then the camera pans upwards to show a pretty, skinny, similar-looking young man doing exactly the same thing from an upstairs window (the traditional lofty vantage point of Diet Coke Ladies), with the exact same rapt, pretty smile and the same head dainty head-propping. So we assume it’s her Gay Brother – though of course he could be bi, or trans.
Straight (another assumption) Sister glances at her No Sugar Coke, has a Eureka moment, and rushes off, practically spilling her homework onto the floor. The next shot is from inside the big American fridge in the big American kitchen, as she opens the door. Coke bottles are displayed across a whole shelf (as products are in adland). I make out, with some freeze-framing, two ‘No Sugar’, two ‘Original Taste’, one ‘Light’ and one ‘Life’. The entire Coca Cola range -- though ‘Diet’ is here represented by ‘Light’, in this global ad.
Coke’s future is Diet – which is itself reportedly becoming ‘gender agnostic’ after all these years of being marketed as ‘one for the ladies’. Likewise, ‘No Sugar Coke’ which replaces poorly performing Coke Zero – or ‘Bloke Zero’ as it was dubbed after its launch in 2006 – seems now to also to be ‘gender agnostic’ after all that money spent trying to tell us it wasn’t for girls. Straight Sister in ‘Pool Boy’ is drinking No Sugar.
Meanwhile, back inside that big American fridge, straight Sister, a wild gleam in her eye, grabs an Original Taste Coke. But Gay Brother has obviously had the same idea – at that moment he appears behind her grabbing the same bottle. The aroused, intense looks on their faces makes clear that the slippery Coke bottle symbolises objectified, pool/fuck boy. Straight Sister finally wrenches it out of Gay Brother’s hand and rushes off.
A dejected Gay Brother then grabs the other bottle of Original Taste (going out of his way not to grab a bottle of No Sugar) and chases after his sister.
They race through the large, suburban house, tripping one another up, before finally arriving at the pool. Only to find The Mother already offering The Hunk a plate of sandwiches, while he glugs a bottle of Original Taste Coca Cola (which magically refills when cutting to The Mother shrugging), his Adam’s apple moving suggestively in his muscular, shiny throat above his muscular shiny chest as he poses rather uncomfortably, to show off his body to best effect.
Mother gives a shrug to her kids, who are staring at her in shock and defeat. This isn’t her first time at the rodeo.
It’s a funny, well-made and provocative ad that is memorable in an age where everything is instantly forgettable, that succeeds in making a beleaguered brand – sales in the US are falling, and are stagnant in the UK – seem sexy and now.
But I was left with a burning question. Why is everyone – sister, brother, mother – so sure the pool boy drinks Original Taste Coke? And don’t think to ask him, especially since they have a fridge full of different varieties?
Perhaps it’s because The Hunk is a Real Man doing Real Work so he must drink Original Full Fat Sugary Coke. Even when the body being admired belongs to a raging spornosexual and is clearly the result of religious gym attendance and meticulously planned diet programs.
Likewise, although the desires of the women and the gay brother are emphasised, the wants and tastes of The Hunk are irrelevant. He’s an object, a fetish. He’ll swallow whatever he’s given, no gag reflex.
The house, its furnishings and the cast’s clothes are set in an imaginary, ironic 1950s-70s – Coke’s heyday. Long before the demonization of sugar as sinful and Satanic. The only modern things allowed are the pool cleaning machine, the fridge and the loose sexual mores (and No Sugar Coke). Even the soundtrack is a sweetly romantic Italian song from the 1950s. Most retro of all: everyone is white. Even the pool boy.
Fizzy, sugary drinks have lost their soda fountain innocence. They have increasingly been blamed for a host of health problems, including most particularly the worsening obesity epidemic. An ugly problem that of course doesn’t exist anywhere in this ad. Everyone here is slim and sugar-free.
In part because of moves to tax sugary drinks to discourage their consumption, Coke Zero has recently been rebranded as No Sugar Coke – to emphasise that it doesn’t have any of the naughty stuff (lots of people didn’t realise the ‘Zero’ stood for calories). With a reformulated taste that is supposedly ‘even more like the original!’
Which is the tagline to the simulacrum of 21st Century life. Along with ‘taste the feeling’.
Given all this, perhaps the real porn in this ad isn’t where it appears to be after all. Perhaps the real reason The Mother and The Straight Sister and The Gay Brother, who are all slim but leisured and middle class, scramble to offer the sweating, pumped proletarian an Original Taste Coke isn’t because they want to play with his pole. It’s much more depraved than that.
They want to watch someone actually drink a proper sugary coke and enjoy its wicked sinfulness vicariously and voyeuristically -- and calorie-free. Sugar porn.
Not to mention removing the sweet temptation from their fridge before they glug it down themselves.