Gender-targeted advertising, or “Coke Zero is for Bros!”
I am quite addicted to diet soda. I don’t really have a preference in the whole Coke vs. Pepsi debate. Most of the time, I just buy whatever is on sale.
A few weeks ago, the grocery store I shop at was having a Coke Zero promotional sale. I’d never had it before, but, knowing that it’s essentially the same thing as Diet Coke, I figured that I might as well give it a try, so I picked up a case.
When I got home and noticed what was printed on the cans, I was a bit confused:
A football. LOLwut? It’s not yet Superbowl season, and the cans weren’t promoting a specific football team or anything like that. So why a football?
Then I remembered the Coke Zero marketing campaign of 2006-2007 (it continues to this day, but the main push was in 2007). The television ads (they were also shown in movie theaters. I remember this because the exact same Coke Zero ad was played two times in a row (!) before each movie I saw in the first half of 2007) targeted men in the cheesiest and most stereotypical ways possible (quite reminiscent of beer ads, an intentional choice on the part of the Coke Zero brand team) and were a sad attempt to create a “viral marketing” campaign about how the Coke executives were supposedly going to sue the employees who created Coke Zero for “taste infringement”.
These ads smashed viewers over the head with the message:
“Dudes, Coke Zero is totally for guys. None of that girly Diet Coke stuff here! No way. Look! Even super manly NASCAR drivers drink it! Basketball players, too! So don’t be afraid. Unlike Diet Coke, this stuff won’t turn you into a chick or anything. You can even drink Coke Zero in front of your bros! They won’t laugh at you. Yes, it’s calorie-free, but there’s nothing “diet” about this stuff. Plus, it totally tastes way more like real Coke than that super-girly Diet Coke. So, the next time that you’re watching football or NASCAR with your bros, feel free to whip out a can of Coke Zero. It’s a manly man’s drink, manly enough for a super manly dude like you!“
The rationale behind this blatant marketing to men? Apparently, men don’t like products with the word “diet” in their names, as they associate “diet” with femininity (I can’t find any actual studies on this, though. However, a branch of advertising research that focuses on the semiotics of advertisements has produced some interesting studies on “gender semiotics” in advertising, some of which could lend support to the “diet” = “a product for women” claim). The Coca-Cola company took this theory and ran with it:
“There was a clear gap in what we were offering,” said Katie Bayne, Coca-Cola North America’s president and general manager of sparkling beverages, the industry’s preferred term for soft drinks. “No one was giving this younger male target what they wanted.”
At first, Coke Zero didn’t sell very well, so the Coca-Cola executives decided to clarify just how very manly it is, in the hope of increasing sales. The manliness of Coke Zero was emphasized by changing the color of its can from white to black (“a more manly black and red can”, as one journalist called it). And, apparently, it worked:
The white packaging connoted diet drinks, and among the coveted young male demographic, diet connoted “female.” The company quickly borrowed an idea from its Australian division and swathed Coke Zero in black. Within six months, the new marketing and packaging were in place, and the brand took off.
(Note: The Coke Zero marketing campaigns/television commercials in other countries (particularly in the UK, where it’s dubbed “Bloke Coke”(!)) are even cheesier and more blatantly ridiculous than the U.S. ads. Search YouTube for “Coke Zero ads” if you’re curious).
So, now that we’ve established that the Coca-Cola company markets Coke Zero to men by promoting it as a very manly product for manly bros who have manly interests like manly sports and such, let’s move on to the calorie-free elephant in the room:
Coke Zero IS Diet Coke!
Okay, granted, there are a few minor differences. Diet Coke has a bit more caffeine than Coke Zero, and, while Diet Coke uses only one artificial sweetener, Coke Zero uses two, which makes it taste slightly different.
But that’s it. The same product, wrapped up in different packaging and targeted to different audiences. So much advertising money spent to repackage Diet Coke in a way that panders to stereotypically male interests and insecurities. I don’t get it. It seems like such a silly and pointless waste of money and time.
And yet, despite its ridiculous pandering, gender-targeted advertising (whether it is targeted to men or to women) is often quite successful. As such, from the perspective of ad agencies and corporations, it’s certainly not a waste of money or time.
And in the case of Coke Zero, it seems that men indeed have embraced it:
In the 16-24 age group, about 60 percent of Coke Zero’s drinkers are male. But Zero also gets a lot of sales from men 35 or older, whose calorie-trimming ways might otherwise force them out of regular Coca-Cola. Coke Zero has managed to avoid the boom and bust cycle that can plague line extensions.
Gender-targeted advertising is so silly, but, in many cases, it does work. I don’t know enough about the psychology of advertising to speculate a great deal on the whys and the hows of it, but I am definitely curious about it. Most of us think that we’re far too smart to be sucked in by silly ad campaigns. However, somehow, in some way, almost all of us are subconsciously affected by advertising. It’s the most common and the most powerful form of visual rhetoric. And, short of completely cutting ourselves off from modern society, we can’t escape it.
It’s a subject and a phenomenon that is at once both lolzy and quite serious.
(And one last thing: as I write this, I’m drinking Coke Zero out of one of those football-adorned cans. Interpret that as you may :) )