Coca-Cola’s latest campaign plays with the brand’s place in the art world - Faris Yakob takes the work, and its interactive experiences for a spin.

I have a particular fondness for Coke and its advertising. I have photos of Coca-Cola ads from all over the world and I will often pull up the most recent, from whichever country, whenever they have engaged us as a client. Since I have worked on Coke projects since the mid 2000s, I have seen many different eras of their marketing swing this way and back, from brand to triggering consumption and back, from global orchestration and creative to local and back, from CMO to Chief Growth Officer to CMO. These swings are common in most large companies whenever new leadership comes in to ‘fix’ whatever the last lot did but the brand itself contains more interesting tensions.

[Image: Coca-Cola]

Its mental availability (if you will) is anchored into innumerable areas. Making Christmas a ‘category entry point’ in the UK for a refreshing soft drink most obviously appealing in summer is remarkable. I remember the scene in West Side Story when Tony opens a glass bottle of Coke (which is the correct way to drink a Coke, it tastes better, because taste is in the mind not the mouth) while singing Something’s Coming. Coca-Cola, more than many if not most brands, exists in culture. Despite that, I, like the majority of consumers, only buy a can (or ideally glass bottle but it’s hard) of Coke a couple times a year. In the UK Coke Classic is sometimes known as the ‘red ambulance’ for its ability to pick you up after a long night out, yet another association. 

Growing up in the UK it represented something at once uniquely American and globally iconic, ubiquitous but personal. This was of course Andy Warhol’s famous insight, when he wrote “What's great about this country is America started the tradition where the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest. You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you can know that the President drinks Coke, Liz Taylor drinks Coke, and just think, you can drink Coke, too”.

Nothing Andy said should be taken at face value, he was such a performer, but it was the Coke bottle explorations that led him to his breakthrough work with the soup can. Thus we get to the new Coke commercial under the Real Magic banner, Masterpiece. It is visually stunning, as the Coke bottle from one Andy Warhol piece is plucked by another artwork and thrown from classic to modern paintings, each using a different animation style (partially AI generated, of course) to bring it to life, until the bottle reaches the tired and thirsty art student trying to concentrate. It squeezes a product benefit into a spot that anchors Coke into art, ancient and modern, in a way that few brands could credibly pull off. 

It was conceived by an agency called Bliztworks, a virtual agency made of C-level agency exiles that offers to turn ideas around in days, having assembled a virtual team. This concept is heavy on craft and it does feel like Coke threw a “what do we do with generative AI'' brief out to a few agencies. Ancient and modern artists and techniques, highlighting diverse modern artists, lets the brand appeal to a broad swathe of art fans. It is deeply branded because “Masterpiece’ is not a story in which Coke appears… Coke is the story,” as Pratik Thakar, Global Head of Creative Strategy and Content for Coca‑Cola, pointed out. 

System 1 published their report and it scored very highly on feeling and brand fluency and extremely high on their ‘Spike’ metric, which supposedly indicates short term sales impact. It’s definitely one of the more interesting and stand out pieces of work from the campaign so far. It has some fun 3D digital outdoor pieces using what I assume is the public domain image of the Girl with the Pearl Earring and so on interacting with vending machines (it’s been ages since a vending machine idea hasn’t it?), and a website where you can explore the art featured and learn more about the modern artists and the making of. There is also a generative AI website and contest (there it is!).

Due to the need to balance security concerns with a desire for first party data the onboarding process is a little cumbersome. You have to create a ‘Coca-Cola account’ (um, ok?) to access the tool and there’s no way 2FA was really necessary beyond wanting to connect my phone number to said account. That said, once I got through the various hurdles…well actually I didn’t to be honest. There was a promising start but eventually it just kept hanging on me all afternoon. I couldn’t get it to work. That might be because of overwhelming demand on the newly opened up APIs (also why I couldn’t get GTP4 to write this for me). 

The tool combines some light touch editing with image generation but I found it got stuck pretty quickly and seemed hard to make anything look great. I’m sure artists with more patience will find a way though since they are running a contest in 17 countries for a chance to be featured on Coca-Cola’s billboards in New York’s Times Square and London’s Piccadilly Circus. Hopefully the artists will also get paid or additional support, but it’s hard to understand exactly how or why since they can only make things inside Coke’s sandbox (though they did work with some emerging AI artists to generate some of the assets). 

Clearly, Coke has learned the lessons of UGC contests, where you have to set very tight parameters otherwise pranksters and trolls have at you. The founder of Buzzfeed, Jonah Peretti, got his first taste of virality while at MIT because Nike refused to make some ID shoes that had the word ‘sweatshop’ on them, despite it not technically breaking any of their terms and conditions, and he detailed the tortured exchange in an article for Harper’s, which ultimately didn’t get published so he sent it to ten friends and they sent it to ten friends…the 2001 internet was a different world. 

But to engage artists you need to give them a usable palette and toolset to work with, and this didn’t work for me (disclaimer: I am not an artist). I feel like it’s a shame to make the interactive piece with less care than the film, especially when people could be making and sharing their personal Coke ads all over the socials with this tool, if only it was easy and fun to use. That said, this puts Coke back into the world of art, and shows the power of cultural references in advertising to connect the generic to the real world outside of the flat ads we so often see today. I think the only issue may be in its somewhat highbrow topic. When I discussed it with people none had known about Warhol’s Coke work (there’s a lot of it, one sold for nearly $60M, but I’m a fan) and, according to System 1, there was a small but persistent band of negative emotional response from some some people across the entire ad, centering on disgust, anger and contempt, which might stem from a rejection of ‘highbrow’ cultural references. 

So it may not work for everyone but when you are a global icon like Coke that has had 100 years to build itself into culture, you can mean many things to many people, and fit into many different apertures, while remaining the same icon.