There is a vague connection to vulgarity-there exists a tinge of logical association-when Calvin Klein advertises underwear by draping underclothed boys with girls who seem to tremble on the breathless edge of emphysema. Underwear suggests the body parts it covers, after all; those body parts suggest the sex for which they may be used; and sex, as every advertising executive knows, suggests cash purchase to the guileless and tender-minded. This chain of prurient suggestion-a sort of metonymic prostitution-is familiar to anyone who's ever seen TV. And though Calvin Klein's executives probably began the other way around (seeking a product they could hawk with bawdy pictures, and coming up with underwear), their product's connection to their advertising posters remains partially intelligible.
But posters advertising Sprite, the carbonated beverage distributed by Coca-Cola, appeared recently. And these posters, twisting the suggestive chain yet another kink, may have transcended Calvin Klein's weak insistence on intelligibility. These posters for the pixilated soft-drink may have found a supra-rational impropriety, a mysticism of vulgarity. Off-kilter on a loud green background, above a tipsy cup of Sprite, reads Coca-Cola's latest jingle for its soft-drink: “More refreshing than a cool breeze up your shorts.”
Coke once promoted Sprite, its ersatz Seven-Up, as clean and pure and innocent of caffeine-and consequently, by a simple inversion of libidinous allusion, as innocent of sexual awareness: to purchase a Sprite was to exchange the dirty and corrupt cash of adulthood for the innocent and clean delights of uncorrupted childhood. But, faced with clever advertising by its major competitors and with the inroads made in the soft-drink market by specialty brands, Coke has launched a new campaign for its product.
The problem is not so much that Sprite has no obvious connection to sex and impudently gusting breezes. Coke and Pepsi and their dozens of minor competitors decoct innumerable colas, none of which have obvious sexual connotation. But soft-drink manufacturers nonetheless can pitch their colas using the curvaceous Cindy Crawford or the hulking Lucky Vanous much as Calvin Klein uses the waifish Kate Moss or the absurdly striking Christy Turlington: to radiate the promise of limitless sexual arousal.
Of course, advertisers know they have not promised actual sex with Cindy Crawford, and the watching consumers know they have not been promised actual sex with Cindy Crawford. But with a humorous wink and a witting nudge-so intuitive has eroticism become-an advertiser lets its viewers know that it knows that they know that it knows what's up when Cindy Crawford sashays across a TV screen. The erotic chain is strong enough to withstand the play of considerable self-conscious, self-referential, self-abusing humor, and nearly every advertisement today titillates its voyeurs by playing with itself.
A history of ads for Coke reflects in many ways the social history of America-except that it is a history consistently one day behind the fair. Those Coca-Cola Gibson Girls, with their blowzy hair and pleated shirtfronts, were in their time as far behind fashion's fair as were the groovy boys and girls who wanted so to teach the world to sing long after the hippiedrome had closed its doors. Though the slogan was introduced in 1941, Coke remained “The Real Thing” some time after the adjective “real” had lost what little existential force it might once have had.
In recent years, while Seven-Up staked out cuteness and Pepsi staked out celebrity advertising, Coca-Cola has found no sure territory for its ads. Television viewers were treated to Coke-swigging polar bears last Christmas, as Coke discovered computer graphics two seasons late, and the current ad campaign reemphasizes the old, wasp-waisted bottle (itself a semi-sexualized relic of the early days of advertising's flirtation with the erotic), as Coke chases vainly after the departed wagon of nostalgia.
Like poor relations, Coca-Cola's subsidiary brands have always suffered a lack of identity as the colossus Coke mounted its heavy-footed ad campaigns. Once the flood of ‘80s diet drinks with ‘80s sweeteners swept away the saccharine Tab, Sprite remained Coke's most successful cousin. But it remained as well a product without much definition. A recent television campaign, showing a Sprite-drinking boy trounced by a professional basketball star, plays well against rival soft-drinks' sports-celebrity ads. But it cannot define any real image for the product.
With its new posters, however, Sprite hooks back on to titillation-and, in pure absurdity, stretches it beyond any rational association. What makes Sprite as refreshing as a cool breeze is its ostensibly thirst-quenching purity and innocence, and thus the old ad campaign's inversion of eroticism made a rough sort of sense. But though “purity” is still at least a partially marketable commodity, “innocence” is a term that no one's buying much these days. And so Sprite has kinked its ads one more time.
The point of the cool breeze wafting up your shorts is not that it is pointless (or especially refreshing), but that it recalls the connection between prurience and commercial products forged by countless previous advertisements. The ad doesn't promise anything about sex, it's just vulgar. It doesn't assert anything about the product, it's just lewd. It doesn't do anything at all but wink and say that the familiar suggestive chain does, by golly, still hold firm. And though Sprite has no intelligible connection to the chain, the joke which sells is that we know that Coca-Cola knows it-and Coca-Cola knows we know that Coca-Cola knows it, and knows . . . and knows. Knowledge has been liberated from conformity to constricting reference; Calvin Klein's slavish dependence on logical connection has been transcended by Coca-Cola. The postmodern promise that only texts exist-that a thousand words could be spent analyzing a single sentence without ever reaching reality-is at last fulfilled: suggestiveness is at last set free from any reference to actual sex or actual commercial product. Only the pure, connective vulgarity remains.
With a pair of tiny circled R's, however, Coca-Cola also proclaims that Sprite and Coke are trademarks of the Coca-Cola Company, properly registered with the U.S. government and protected by a very real law-violation of which is certain to be prosecuted. Some things Coke says are still intended to have reference; some small print on advertising posters is still meant to be the real thing.
Joseph Bottum is Associate Editor of First Things.