In 2004, American voters were offered a choice between two presidential candidates in an elaborately staged “taste test” based on consumer preference for one brand of Cola over the other. More recently, voters were faced with yet another soft drink challenge, but this time it was based on the dominant brand’s ill-advised attempt in 1985 to “mess with success” and re-launch its product under a “new” label. Unlike the Bush/Kerry campaign that pitted competing (but otherwise identical) corporate interests against one another, election 2008 more closely resembled an internal struggle within a single corporate entity.
This time around, GW played the unenviable villain role of the Coca Cola exec responsible for his company’s disastrous decision to tamper with the formula and packaging of a beloved, much touted brand of carbolic soda, while Barak Obama played the dissenting marketing genius who comes to the rescue and restores the poisonous product back to its original flavor. Having put the genie, so to speak, back into the bottle, the whiz kid replaces the despised and disgraced CEO much to the relief of customers and shareholders alike. In this fictionalized retelling of the story, the youthful upstart’s deceptively bold campaign to oust his former boss is launched with the support of his enthusiastic and idealistic marketing team, most of whom were eventually given the pink slip once the new CEO settled into his upper floor suite. McCain’s minor role as hired mouthpiece attempting damage control for the outgoing CEO was a comical and insignificant aside to bigger picture premise of an arrogant and deluded leader being challenged by a charismatic and visionary upstart. Never mind that the “visionary” envisioned nothing more radical than a return to the recent past of putting the requisite amount of high fructose corn syrup in aluminum cans.
While Pepsi may have profited handsomely in the short term from Coca-Cola’s mishandling of its newly launched product and the public relations fiasco that followed, it was Coca Cola that ultimately prevailed, outselling the rival brand two to one within six months of reintroducing the old formula as “Coke Classic”. In subsequent retellings of the events in 1985, Coca Cola’s swift and repentant capitulation to consumer demand would be upheld as an example of “the power of the people” in shaping corporate policy, citing the example of millions of angry Coke drinkers bombarding the company’s Atlanta headquarters with angry letters and staging public events to express their anger over what they felt was the company’s arrogant disregard of customer loyalty. What is most often overlooked in this updated David vs Goliath parable is how the beleaguered Behemoth, while publicly licking its wounds, was in fact, laughing all the way to the bank, even as the competition gained short term windfalls over the ensuing “scandal”. Also absent from this feel good retelling of ‘The People vs New Coke’ is how this so-called consumer movement was not in fact a spontaneous rising up of angry citizens against an arrogant giant but a mostly media-generated spectacle that took its talking points from Pepsi’s PR department, hoping to cash in on the “controversy”.
The media/entertainment industrial complex pushes forward these faux story lines, substituting substance with empty calories while prioritizing the trivial at the expense of truth telling. Our system of governance in collusion with its corporate overseers relies on a lazy and willfully misinformed citizenry to effectively function. Like the carefully orchestrated spat between the identical blonde “frenemies” of The Hills, the presumed enmity between Team Obama and Team Bush (and even Team Clinton) was a merely a plot device to enhance the selling points of deodorant and hybrid cars during a profitable election cycle.
Voters, not unlike soft drink aficionados can be counted on to rally around a non-cause perpetrated by multiple corporate entities all profiting from a well orchestrated marketing blitz – just as they can be counted on to take these falsely constructed narratives and marketing campaigns at face value, eschewing facts for factoids, truth for “truthiness” and reality for the MTV version. Coverage of November’s landmark presidential election puts forward a similar feel good spin on what really amounts to a a staged confrontation between costumed rivals. Admittedly, it’s difficult not to applaud the triumphant outcome of the “underdog” in this elaborately choreographed “battle”. The poised and telegenic President-Elect is a flawless package, even if his sleek exterior conceals the same corrosive elements that defined his predecessors. Once again, a multi-lateral marketing campaign yielded a simulacrum democratic movement under a new slogan. “Yes, we can!” heralded as a stroke of (marketing) genius on par with “I have a Dream” (but without all the pesky nuance, intellectual depth and angry black guy connotations) was less a continuation of Dr King’s groundbreaking speech than having evolved from the brain trust that once declared Coca-Cola “The Great National Temperance Beverage”.
By the time he officially enters the White House with his revived cabinet of Clinton appointees, President Obama will have calmed the angry public backlash at the executive responsible for tampering with an established brand of “soft” Imperialism and exposing it as a crude, corpse strewn land grab. Like the subsequently re-branded ‘Coke Classic’, Brand Obama has never been about “change” but merely reversion to an executive branch that pretends to “feel your pain” while continuing to inflict it even more brutally on vulnerable and impoverished populations overseas.
Still weeks away from officially taking office, and already President-Elect Obama’s early supporters; those insignificant and ultimately embarrassing hordes of anti-war “progressives” who dug into near empty pockets to launch his grassroots campaign are feeling the sting of betrayal with each passing news cycle announcing his cabinet picks. Perhaps we should not be surprised by his choice of hawkish economic and foreign policy advisors and “experts”, or the appointment of Lady MacClinton herself as Secretary of State. After all, contrary to popular belief, no one at Coca-Cola was fired or otherwise penalized for their role in perpetrating what is widely perceived as the worst marketing decision ever made for the simple reason that for all its bad publicity, the “miscalculation” proved ultimately beneficial to the architects of this “failure”. “Catastrophic success” then as now describes the unintended benefits that befall the mighty in the wake of a seemingly insurmountable setback.
Presidential candidate Obama might have questioned Senator Clinton’s judgment in authorizing the war in Iraq with her ‘yes’ vote, but having measured the decorous curtains in his plush new quarters, perhaps he can afford to be magnanimous towards his former nemesis Bill Clinton. No doubt the old horn dog is salivating over the prospect of spending quality time with his next booty call while the Missus waddles across the world stage to collect her next consolation prize.
What pundits describe as the “seamless” White House transition currently underway should give us more reason to despair than hope. This smooth and apparently amicable transfer of power that the pundits insist is proof that civility and pragmatism are being restored to the nation’s highest office merely confirms that “change” and “hope” are, and always have been, euphemistic terms for “Business and Empire as Usual”. That should have been obvious when the “anti-war” candidate shifted his rhetorical stance from ending the bloodshed in Iraq to escalating the US military presence in Afghanistan. His groveling campaign speech to AIPAC was another indication that his conscience and intellect were impediments on the path to his “historic” presidency; short-term glitches in an otherwise flawlessly executed marketing campaign. His swift post-election appointment of Likud Party poster boy Rahm Emanuel as Chief-of-Staff, Joe “I am a Zionist” Biden as Vice-President, and of course, the selection of Hillary (“I will obliterate Iran”) Clinton to lead the State Department are further indications that the next US president is gearing up to serve as Israel’s next outsourced leader.
As he prepares to fulfill his duties overseeing the vast corporate/ military apparatus required to sustain his newly adopted homeland, the last thing we should expect from this “agent of change” is, say, a rational and humane response to the humanitarian crisis currently playing out in Gaza as Israel’s deadly blockade of the occupied territories intensifies, or a swift withdrawal of US troops from Iraq as promised early on his campaign. Nor should we expect the media under an Obama presidency to relinquish its role as the propaganda arm of an National Security State comprised of a willfully misinformed electorate unable to distinguish between Brand A Cola and its political counterpart. After all, voters, content to passively adore their beloved candidate from a viral YouTube video or a Huffpo blog post extolling his sterling qualities, did not set a mandate for their “agent of change” or otherwise instruct him to implement policy that represented a significant departure from the current one. It was enough, it turns out, to project one’s hopes on to an abstractly held notion of “change” and bask in the warm glow of being part of a movement, even if the movement was little more than a disgraced brand’s temporary recall of a product tainted by bad publicity.
The one time community organizer turned politician has finally revealed himself as a viral marketing phenomenon on par with Max Headroom, Coca Cola’s virtual, lantern jawed mascot whose appeal rested on his ability to convey nothing and everything simultaneously. Depending on the psychological profile of the consumer, the remote, disembodied Cola mascot was either a figure of strength and authority or a “new wave” icon thumbing his digital nose at the old order. The enigmatic shape shifting Max Headroom was reborn in the Senator from Illinois who similarly and deceptively conveyed youth and rebellion while advocating the same kind of muscular foreign policy of his predecessors. This cynically contradictory message did not appear to cause discomfiture among Obama’s centrist base, who insist to this day that the “grassroots” nature of his early campaign and the “cool” factor he was able to engender in a process that traditionally overlooks the role of young voters somehow mitigates the President-Elect’s transformation from agent of “change” to establishment hawk waiting to serve out Bush’s third term.
Where “Classic” was once stamped on a hastily reconfigured pop can to distinguish it from its internal rival, “Hope” became the official slogan of a disgraced brand desperately seeking to re-establish its dominant market share with a quick fix solution. Just as consumers never noticed that the cheaper sweetening agent that had replaced liquid cane sugar in the “old” Coke was now the staple ingredient of “Classic” Coke, most of us remain blissfully non-cognizant of the sleight of hand deceptions going on behind the scenes as Brand USA relaunches itself as a continuation of the status-quo.
JENNIFER MATSUI can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org