The Coca-Cola company’s recent advertising campaign is nothing short of brilliant. Drink not just any coke, but drink the one made for you, your friends, even your soulmate. Brilliant. Nothing brings the world together like the combination of aluminum, acidic water, and high fructose corn syrup.
In one fell swoop, they have conjured up an attachment to American Corporatism, our own sense of subjectivity, and religion in a singular summer campaign that is as original and as appealing as the primordial stories of the Genesis narrative…stories that we continue to tell ourselves because we are still looking for ourselves.
An attachment to American Corporatism in that this campaign has tapped into the younger generation’ s preference for personalized products that make them feel unique, special and appeals to their sense of self. The brilliance: making us think we had something to do with the design and target of this product. The reality: we’re just having our selves sold to us in the name of our personal preference. The genius continues as nearly everyone from young adulthood to seniorhood can join and not feel excluded. How many advertising campaigns can accomplish this?
An attachment to our subjectivity in that is asks us to pursue the product made just for us. It appeals to a product with which we are familiar, but now wholly unfamiliar because now this familiar taste is labeled with our distinct form of being toward one another, our true identity marker, our name. Find the can that was made for you, then, find your friends can and you are inextricably linked in your bond of sugary, watery, goodness. Its shiny outward appearance doesn’t hurt either.
An attachment to religion because this is the real exploitation going on here. What is life but a quest for ourselves? For Meaning? For finding something that we can tangibly taste and finally find fulfillment within?
We walk into the convenient store, see ourselves pulled toward the façade of the glass covered forest of soft drinks that vie for our attention, even as the colors and wrappers distract us, and we stick our hand in the cooler, foraging around the forest until we find ourselves, our can, the one that will satisfy our thirst. And like religion, we grab the one we want, the one that helps us find ourselves, we drink, and then find we are still thirsty. Looks like we better go back for more because our thirst is never fully satisfied. Coke, the drink that satisfies without quenching. Religion, where we look to satisfy our thirst and locate ourselves in the ocean of creation. Only this coke campaign is so much cooler than religion because Coca-Cola is tapping into this unconscious reality we carry with us, rather than boringly preach it from pulpits.
But what is it that holds all these strings together? Wherein might we combine the corporate, the subject and religion into a coherent understanding that binds them all and makes this campaign so effective?
And make no mistake, it has been effective. We have yet to see the 3rd quarter results of the campaign here in America and Britain, but we know in Australia when the campaign was rolled out (2011) the sale of coke products increased among young adults by 7%, garnered 18.3 million media impressions and injected an 870% increase in Cokes Facebook following. Correspondingly, #shareacoke has been used more than 29,000 times on Twitter and early statistics for the global impact show that sales of Coke are up 6.8% to date.
This is an impressive campaign. So what holds it together?
While many media outlets want to continue to see this phenomenon as a pure marketing gimmick, appealing to the needs of a younger generation of consumers, this fails to consider that a huge spike in impressions, sales, and usage of the product cannot be created by single use/purchase history of consumers. People are not just looking for their Coke once. We are looking for it over and over again, looking for our friends, even looking for the elusive BFF or Soulmate designation that in a single can taps into our inner desire to find happiness and finally suppress our existential angst. What makes this campaign work is something that goes to the core of human constitution; it’s not as simple as “consumers like X so let’s make X.”
It works because at an unconscious level humans are continually looking to fill what Lacan calls the Lack in their own constitution, their own being, the gap created as soon as we are speaking beings born into the symbolic order. The Bible calls this “fallenness,” but perhaps Heidegger’s notion of “thrown” and Tillich’s idea of “Fall” is closer to Lacan’s idea of Lack than the of rottenness of our humanity bequeathed to us from St. Augustine.
The can is something we seek, but the reality is that the real object behind the object that is the can, let’s give Lacan some play and call the can the “O Object” (as he would), is never found. It remains hidden, out of our grasping, yet constitutional of our sense of “we’re missing something” in our life that continues to push us deeper into the field of objects we think can satisfy us yet always keep us thirsty…you know, kinda how you feel after you drink a can of coke and are thirstier than ever.
This O Object is central to the constitutionality of us all as subjects. In other words, the Can of coke is always already ontologically linked to who we are and how we create meaning, even as meaning is always still sought. The only thing that changes is the “o,” the object that symbolizes our desire for more than we have, and thus, is representative of the lack. The lack always remains with us, even though the object can change.
Today it is a can of Coke with your name. Tomorrow it may be the ring you give your lover, the car of your “dreams,” the child you’ve always wanted or even the Sports team into which you have poured all your energy. These are just “o” objects, remnants of the eternal symptom of our humanity to want more, be more, and find absolute truth in our lived experience…yet the lack remains. We need a bigger ring, a newer car, a child of a different sex, and one Super Bowl simply begets the desire of another. Nothing fills this lack, not even the living water of Jesus that requires us to return weekly in order to be served perpetually.
But where does this “o” object come from? The O represents the loss we have in our lives, and it’s not the “god shaped hole” if that is what you are thinking.
Constitutional of humanity is an originary loss. Christian theology talks about this loss as the fall from grace, the irreparable damage done by our pre-diluvian ancestors that marks the lack of God in all of us that has now been filled with a “sin” nature. What Lacan is getting at is a little more exact, observable and more empirically linked to our human relationships. It’s not the story we tell to ourselves to explain ourselves (via Genesis); it is rather the story we have lived.
At first the loss is between child and mother, child and father, as these relationships begin to stretch and sever one another at various points of a child’s development. We have all seen this, as a child moves away from fusion that the child desires to separation. Distance that is the goal of parenting and it begins to be sharpened as we speak and take in the field of objects now available to us in place of the relationship we had with our parents. Loss marks our entrance into the symbolic order of language, custom and construction of the world. Thus, life is marked by this attempt to again find wholeness and oneness that is now taken away from us in that originary unified oceanic experience that brought us into existence and nurtured our lives. Life is marked by trying to bridge that gap, between separation and unity, incomplete and complete, that creates us as subjective entities and a sense wholeness that is now only known because of the lack between ourselves and fulfillment.
Following this line of logic, Alexandre Leupin describes the possibility of “o” objects, objects of desire that fill the lack that cannot be filled, when he states, “Inasmuch as all objects of desire will later be substituted for these primary metonymies (voice, gaze, breast [of mother]) the o object is the cause of desire. Given the infinite number of objects human desire aspires to, o may be almost anything.”
The O object is not real. It is encased in the symbolic order of reality as representation of what we want and are missing in the world; it is masked as a egotistic projection. Thus, the object is both that which is external to us and also created by us as a projection of what sort of desire can actually satisfy us and give us ourselves back to ourselves. As such, these objects are inherently narcissistic. If there is one thing we can say about this Coke campaign, it is certainly that narcissim is central to its success. The objects that attempt to placate our desire, however, are always already partial objects. They can never fully fill the task that creates them. They can never satisfy desire. Or in the words of Lacan, the object is so lacking to fill our lack that it is the alienation of desire itself, pushing it further from its fulfillment. “The object is failure.” You can find your can, but you never really find you can. It’s your name, but not really. It acts to fill a need, yet it exacerbates it.
Desire is the symptom of our larger problem, of a larger truth for which we continually quest. This does not mean that truth can never be found or that the quest for truth always ends in the repetitive cycle of desire. What it does mean, however, is that truth is hidden, its clues given in the object as symptomatic expression of our lack, a lack that makes us human…and even filling the God shaped hole with Jesus won’t keep us from being drawn to cans of coke with our existential names on them.
So what makes us want the “can” with our name…the can that is better than all others and whose contents are more satisfying than any coke before them? It is that these Coke cans, who name us even as we name ourselves through them, are representative of the infinite symptom of what we all lack and are also always seeking. It is the idea that we pursue because this idea both consciously, and unconsciously, helps us construct our sense of selves and give us purpose to navigate the world, at a level of both honesty and dishonesty.
And there is nothing that does this better than finding the can for which we have been looking, only to find that we are still thirsty.
And this is the brilliance of the Coca- Cola Company. It has sold us something old, with something older, and tapped into the need we have to look for it over and over again.
*Statistics for this blog may be found at the Guardian http://www.theguardian.com/media-network/media-network-blog/2013/jul/24/share-coke-teach-brands
*Text used as reference Alexandre Leupin, Lacan Today, (Other Press: New York, 2004), 4-8.