If you live in the United States and want to drink cola, you basically have two options: Coke or Pepsi. So note that Coke has two ways to get a comparative advantage over its rival. It can try to make itself look good, or it can try to make Pepsi look bad.
A few hundred xenophobes badmouthing Coke and pledging allegiance to Pepsi instead certainly makes Pepsi look bad, and it does so without cannibalizing Coke’s core audience. Because it takes an incredible amount of energy to hate pretty much anything, you’ll find the “batshit xenophobe” demographic is pretty small. This is why neither brand wants to be the one every racist turns to for a cola fix. There isn’t much money there.
Enter the Coke Super Bowl ad, a tame commercial statement that documented a company’s desire to have lots of different people buy what it sells. This somehow provoked an angry reaction, as seen in early posts that used the #fuckcoke hashtag.
There is consumer marketing lore of brands saying or doing dumb stuff on purpose in order to drag over-performing or better-positioned products down with theirs. When Coke rushed to market Tab Clear as a deliberately unappealing soft drink in order to destroy Crystal Pepsi, for instance, it took this principle to the extreme. But that isn’t what happened Sunday. Coke’s Super Bowl play was more nuanced. It baited humanity’s lowest common denominators into criticizing a pretty noncontroversial subject, all with the advanced knowledge that their criticism would be relentlessly mocked by other viewers and provoke days of exasperated coverage by professional opinion-havers.
People generally post criticism, not admiration, online, and Coke used this knowledge to extend the duration of its media buy. Racists criticized it’s commercial; the rest of the internet criticized the racists.
The brand successfully trolled the trolls.
It used things it did not create and thus has no responsibility for fixing — a divided political environment, a resentment of other cultures, and a paranoid suspicion that everything has underlying political motivations, all of which are generally coming from an extremely small portion of conservative Republicans — to simultaneously promote a message of inclusion and place a competitor in an uncomfortable position. Neither cola company is a super PAC. They have only the responsibility to profit as much as possible by using any legal means available. Coke has concluded one way to do that is to use morons with internet connections as pawns to generate press coverage for an advertisement — to generate earned media off of paid media by using owned media as an amplifier. It didn’t spark a debate; it exploited an opportunity. Does anyone think the Coke ad triggered thoughts these racists weren’t already having on their own?
Pepsi could’ve countered by taking to Twitter or another owned-media channel to praise Coke’s commercial and distance itself from the xenophobes, but it didn’t. Pepsi’s corporate blog just sucks, and its Twitter feed isn’t much more than marketing nonsense. One could have looked at those assets and concluded Pepsi wouldn’t be too quick to optimize their potential value. This was probably something Coke researched in weighing the pros and cons of its Super Bowl strategy.
Correctly predicting that Pepsi would fail to react in any meaningful way is what made the ad really work. Pepsi could’ve trumped Coke with a clear, elegant response that would be generating positive media coverage today. But it missed that opportunity.
The commercial itself was nothing terribly memorable. But the strategic approach behind it was a classic.