OK Branding

A quarter-century ago, a really big soda company attempted to subvert itself to reach Gen X. The problem? Coca-Cola’s OK Soda was a couple of decades too early.

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Karen Corday, who last appeared on the newsletter about a year ago to tell us all about Snackwell’s cookies. This time, she dives into a completely different ’90s nostalgia bomb. Read on!

Today in Tedium: Today’s Tedium analyzes a trailblazer of subversive marketing. OK Soda’s influence might have stuck far longer than the drink itself. Here in 2020, many of us block the president of the United States on Twitter and turn instead to brands like Steak-ummm for succor and truth bombs. How could Generation X have predicted this behavior from the purveyor of humble frozen sandwich steaks so many of us relied on when feeding ourselves after-school snacks? How could we have known that The Coca Cola Company’s failed attempts to use irony, disenfranchisement, and disillusionment to sell us subpar soda would one day be business as usual? — Karen @ Tedium

Krisp #2

Fight the background noise … and win. If you’re stuck at home trying to do video calls with lots of background distractions, a little AI could help drown those noises out. Check out the AI tool Krisp, which does just that. It’s one of Ernie’s favorite programs, and it has a free version.

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Remember when this was a thing? (Mike Bloomberg/Flickr)

A seemingly long time ago, Michael Bloomberg tried (and failed) to turn memes into votes

In what now seems like decades ago (February 2020), Michael Bloomberg ran a presidential campaign in which he openly hired consultancies and memelords alike to create self-deprecating, aggressively ironic sponsored content to be shared on influencers’ social media accounts. The results were so indistinguishable from the usual satire on the ’gram that they feature disclosures like “Yes, this is really #sponsored by @MikeBloomberg.” The campaign first worked with Tribe, “the world’s fastest growing Branded Content marketplace” to pay “microinfluencers” with “1,000 to 100,000 followers” a flat fee of $150 to create original pro-Bloomberg content.

At that point, Facebook still had policies in place concerning political advertising and branded content. When The Daily Beast broke the story of the Bloomberg campaign paying influencers, several other publications followed suit. The campaign “declined to comment” and Tribe clarified that it was “collecting materials for Bloomberg’s campaign to share” as opposed to asking paid individuals to share their memes on their own accounts. They also, according to their own timeline, took the opportunity to ask Facebook to “clarify” its advertising policies.

As more media outlets reported on Bloomberg’s strategy, the campaign stopped declining to comment and, in Tribe’s words, “seize[d] an opportunity; owning their actions and capitalizing on the coverage surrounding this nontraditional approach to the campaign. They transform[ed] the seemingly-embarrassing headline into one of the most unique Influencer Marketing strategies the political stage has seen.”

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An example of a Bloomberg campaign meme. We know this took place three months ago, and three months ago feels like 20 years ago. (via Business Insider)

The campaign doubled down and reached out directly to the company Meme 2020 whose lead strategist Mick Purzycki came from the marketing company Jerry Media, notorious for its association with the Fyre Festival as well as its blatant, unapologetic tactics from its “early days”: stealing content and reposting it without crediting the original creators. Meme 2020 proceded to craft a Bloomberg story that revolved around leaning into the campaign’s cringey “how do you do, fellow kids?” vibe and posting screenshots of what appeared to be direct messages from Mike Bloomberg to Meme 2020 affiliates/”megainfluencers” with over a million followers such as @Tank.Sinatra, @Sonny5ideup, and Jerry Media’s @fuckjerry itself. Influencers shared supposed direct messages from Bloomberg pleading with “Mr. Tank” and “Mr. Sideup” to “make him look cool” and asking for “a viral meme to let the younger generation know I am the cool candidate.”

The discombobulation was the point and, for a while, it worked in terms of getting the public’s attention.

“It’s the most successful ad I’ve ever posted,” Tank Sinatra founder George Resch told The New York Times. “And I think a lot of it came from people being confused whether or not it was real.”

Bloomberg paid Meme 2020 to make faux-naive, blatantly insincere memes in which Bloomberg pretended to be a stereotypical culturally unaware Boomer (ok Bloomer?) floundering on the internet with the actual intention of “build[ing] a self-aware ironic character around Mr. Bloomberg.” A teen who ran the apparently now inactive “meme account” @BigDadWhip told the New York Times that he’d “be down” to work with the campaign as “bread is bread.”

This sort of advertising is a new addition to presidential campaign playbooks, but it’s also fairly inescapable within the media landscape as a whole at this point. The Daily Beast article about the meme-ification of Bloomberg pointed out that the campaign was “trying an ad strategy familiar to every other startup with a ton of cash and a questionable business model: Paying influencers to make it seem cool.” The strategy ultimately did not work and Bloomberg spent over a billion dollars, including $566 million on advertising, with only a win in American Samoa on Super Tuesday to show for himself. What it did do was highlight the absolute ubiquity of advertising campaigns that use self-aware irony in order to sell their products. This technique is so omnipresent that it feels as if it’s been with us forever.

But, as everyone obviously knows, marketers didn’t discover irony, sarcasm, or self-awareness until the early ’90s. (Duh.)

When the Coca Cola company used this technique in 1994 in an attempt to market a new beverage specifically and aggressively to then-young Generation X consumers, they were quickly and soundly rejected. How was the short, doomed OK Soda campaign so ahead of its time as to entirely predict the advertising landscape of 25 years into the future—and how did 1994’s crashing failure become 2020’s business as usual?

1M+

The number of cases of OK Soda that sold between July 1994 and September 1995, despite the heavy anti-marketing, according to The Believer. To put that in perspective, Coca Cola sold 30.3 billion cases of beverages last year according to its most recent annual investor report, or 83 million cases per day. Around 70 percent of that was soda.

OK Soda Can

Yes, this is the kind of soda that marketed itself so ironically that it put ironic quotes around “beverage.” (Derek Bruff/Flickr)

How a dominant soda company tried (and failed) to subvert itself

In April of 1994, two months after the success of Fruitopia, with its claim to be the drink of choice not just for people who were thirsty and sick of Snapple but for “mind, body, and planet,” Coca-Cola marketing chief Sergio Zyman held a press luncheon at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York. He promised attendees “You will realize at the end of this presentation that ‘Things are going to be OK.’” This was the world’s introduction to OK Soda, a reportedly citrusy, slightly spicy cola intended for the “12-to-25-year-old inhabitants of the Beavis and Butt-Head zone.”

Zyman had a hit with Fruitopia, and was most well-known and well-respected for bringing the world Diet Coke in 1982, which immediately overtook Tab and Diet Pepsi as the best selling diet cola in the United States and became the fourth best selling soda overall as well. However, he was also well-known for the abject failure of New Coke, a response to blind taste tests in which people reported liking the reportedly smoother, sweeter taste of Pepsi over Coke despite Coke’s bigger market share. The New Coke formula also performed well in taste tests, but the public was devoted to the concept of Coca-Cola—after all, “Coke had spent more than a hundred years convincing the North American population that its product was an integral part of their lives, their very identities. Taste be damned: to do away with Coca-Cola was to rip something vital from the American soul.” Consumers rejected it before it was even available. Perhaps Zyman came away from the New Coke imbroglio with a newly honed sense of the importance of advertising iconography and consumers’ emotional attachment to products over the actual quality of products, which makes the complete whiffing of his attempt to market to Gen Xers all the more compelling.

Zyman reportedly chose the name “OK” because it was the only word that beat “Coke” in terms of recognition across all languages around the world. According to a _Marketing News _article from May 23, 1994, Zyman reported that Coca Cola liked the name “because it was so widely accepted and suggested optimism and unpretentiousness.” The same article reported that the target audience was males aged 12 to 25 years old “weary of hype and pretension” and therefore the advertising would take an “irreverent approach.” The name may have suggested optimism but Zyman was well aware of the negativity his target audience felt regarding being a target audience in the first place.

In the May 1994 issue of Beverage World, Zyman elaborated on the concept of “OK-ness”—“a good or even average feeling about pretty much anything.” The idea of an advertising executive openly stating that his product might give consumers a good feeling but even an average feeling is something to work towards seems both of its time and ahead of its time—Generation X had already been referred to as mopey slackers for years and its love-hate relationship with mainstream popular culture was a defining aspect of life in 1994. Kurt Cobain died fifteen days before OK Soda was unveiled at the Four Seasons, just two years after Nirvana appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, Cobain in a t-shirt proclaiming CORPORATE MAGAZINES STILL SUCK.

The hindsight is both 20/20 and creepy as hell.

It was one thing to have the rock star who accidentally ushered in an entire dominant culture that was supposed to be an alternative to the existing dominant culture ironically point out his own hypocrisy via a homemade t-shirt insulting the very corporate magazine making him a household name. It was a tonally similar but decidedly ideologically _different _thing to have one of the biggest corporations in the world hold a press conference fifteen days after said rock star’s suicide and feature its chief marketing officer proudly bragging “OK-ness is part of a marketing ploy and our audience knows it; they’re in on the joke.”

Fizzled Out, the seemingly currently inactive blog devoted to discontinued soda, has collected the entire run of OK Soda television commercials. Enjoy the “television chain letters,” the disconcerting, almost Adbusters-esque emphasis on bar codes, the fake Dick Dale backing music, and the self-consciously old timey Nick at Nite tones of the announcer who shares that detractors have compared the television chain letters to “a virus” and “the notorious kudzu plant creeping everywhere, strangling all it touches.”

OK Soda Shirt

This killer shirt is begging for some ironic person to buy it. (via eBay)

OK Soda tried (and somewhat succeeded) at borrowing the hip design sense of underground artists

OK’s self-consciously lo-fi graphic design found on the cans and in the advertisements suggested vintage advertisements from old ’50s and ’60s magazines cut out, taped together, and photocopied, similar to homemade, self-published ‘zines, another formerly “alternative” method of creating and publishing work outside of the mainstream whose methods and aesthetics were then starting to be co-opted by corporations.

The participation of Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns, two of the more popular underground comics artists of the era, was another important aspect of OK’s image. Daniel Clowes was best known for his comic book Eightball, which contained several ongoing serials, including the particularly popular and influential Ghost World. Charles Burns had been around since the early 1980s, publishing in the legendary comics magazine RAW and illustrating indie label (and home of Nirvana before they signed with corporate label DGC Records) Sub Pop’s own in-house fanzine.

If OK Soda drinkers were not already aware of the work of Clowes and Burns, they would still be able to recognize the cans’ specifically “underground” and “alternative” look because they featured art from two of the most recognizable and successful artists from that underground. Startups with “a ton of cash and a questionable business model” didn’t invent the concept of “paying influencers to make it seem cool” and OK’s hiring Clowes and Burns is the 1994 version of this very technique. In a 2014 article from The Believer, Clowes recalls thinking the proposal asking him to create art for the can was a “rich guy’s prank” and knowing OK was doomed— “you could not market to cynical hipsters by being cynical and hipsterish.”

They offered him a lot of money, and, since “bread is bread” after all, Clowes took it, but not without his own contribution to the sloppy cynical and hipsterish stew of it all. The portrait he drew for the can art features a man with “the eyes and nose of Charles Manson.”

In another example of the campaign failing in part because it was too ahead of its time, the look of those cans is now inescapable and ubiquitous within the world of craft beer brewing—self-conscious old-fashioned fonts, baffling, lengthy, folksy yet pretentious descriptions regarding the beer you’re about to drink, and deadpan illustrations tinged with a little bit of kitsch and surrealism. The original cans are now highly collectible, regular selling for hundreds of dollars on Ebay; a promotional t-shirt is currently available for $99.99 via BuyItNow—there are 17 watchers as I write this, so be quick!

Later advertisers tried (and very much succeeded) in building on OK Soda’s general idea

Self-aware, surreal advertising that calls itself out as advertising is now so entirely baked into life in 2020 that Steak-umm’s recent notoriety is most notable for its sincerity and transparency rather than its simple weirdness and lols.

The internet has made advertising so ubiquitous and so intertwined with other types of media that it’s often hard to tell it apart from non-commercial content, hence the need for “yes this is really #sponsored by @MikeBloomberg.” “Sponcon” is the method by which many influencers make their livings, a concept that would have been unimaginable in 1994 not to mention antithetical to the wannabe Lloyd Doblers who quoted the iconic “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career” speech in their high school yearbooks.

Would Burger King’s Subservient Chicken campaign have been as successful without its website that allowed consumers to command a man in a chicken suit to dance? OK Soda had an 800-number for consumers, which seems to be what most people remember about the campaign if they remember it at all.

Perhaps the secret to this kind of advertising’s ultimate success is its modern ability to constantly interact with and be remixed, retweeted, memeified, and danced with on TikTok by consumers.

(The Subservient Chicken site lives on, by the way. The main video is broken, but the context-free memes hang out at the bottom of the page under the heading It’s Been A Long Ten Years. This could be a metaphor for the entire 2020 internet, really.)

Ultimately, the way to Gen Xers’ hearts in the ’90s was to parody the pop culture of the ’70s, which Boomers were not yet prepared to do because no one wants to see the popular culture of their own 20s as a hilariously retro joke.

I’m sorry to say this, but take Reality Bites, another 1994 debut which, for all its absurdities, was in fact a portrait of Gen Xers directed by an actual Gen Xer—then 28-year-old Ben Stiller in his directorial debut. Within the first two minutes of the movie, new University of Texas at Austin graduates party on the roof of a building, Winona Ryder’s Lelaina tells the camera that she would, in all seriousness, like to somehow make a difference in people’s lives. Ethan Hawke’s “coffee shop guitarist” Troy, who has not managed to graduate because he is the movie’s Slacker character who lives in a Den of Slack, prances into her shot and smirkmumbles around a cigarette that he “would like to buy them a Coke.”

Throughout the rest of the movie, the characters incessantly communicate with one another and express themselves via advertising slogans, television jingles, and pop culture from the ’70s, from Jeanane Garofalo’s Vickie jokingly telling the camera about her “not so fresh feeling” and sleeping in a bedroom plastered with Andy Gibb and Saturday Night Fever posters to Lelaina and Ben Stiller’s young yuppie sell-out Michael bonding over a collectible figurine of Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes to the cast drunkenly singing a chorus of “Conjunction Junction” from Schoolhouse Rock to the infamous “My Sharona” dance in a convenience store. If Sergio Zyman had brought back Tab, another Coca-Cola product that was phased out by his Diet Coke, it might have been an actual success, akin to the company temporarily bringing back New Coke in 2019 as a tie-in to promote season three of Stranger Things, which featured not just a New Coke subplot but also Ethan Hawke’s now 21-year-old daughter Maya playing an “alternative girl” who is as sarcastic about and bored with her job as Troy in Reality Bites.

(Maya also played Jo March in the BBC miniseries adaptation of Little Women, a role made famous by, yes, Winona Ryder in 1994, just in case the stage-setting importance of 1994 hasn’t been emphasized enough in this article.)

In fact, for all his expensive in on the joke memelording, Bloomberg could have REALLY tapped into the current zeitgeist for the current hilariously retro joke of the ’90s and scooped up some OK Soda collectibles with which to take “accidentally” unflattering selfies. Maybe next time.

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Karen Corday

Your time was just wasted by Karen Corday

Karen Corday writes about feelings, songs, movies, relationships, memories, old things, karaoke, and books. She lives in Northampton, MA.

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