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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 :) )

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53 Comments
  1. Advertising also pushes stereotypes that had never previously existed, yet most folk think have been around for ages.
    Take the “blue for boys”, “pink for girls” meme.
    It is quite recent, and created by ad agencies.
    Yet I grew up assuming that it had applied for hundreds of years!
    But both my mother & my father tell me that it definitely did not apply when they were infants, if anything, it was the other way around.

    What you see as gender-targeting may, in fact, be pure de novo gender archetyping.

    November 6, 2011
  2. Informative and insightful, article, Miranda. I teach marketing courses at various colleges (UCLA and UCSB among others) and have said for a while that “Coke Zero is Diet Coke for Dudes.” The main difference, however, is that, while it is a diet drink, it does taste more “syrupy” like regular Coke. But for an intensive purposes, you are right: Coke Zero is Diet Coke.

    November 6, 2011
    • All intents and purposes.

      November 7, 2011
    • Thanks, Matthew! And yeah, it does taste different. It’s weird how just a slight tweak in the sweeteners can do that

      November 9, 2011
  3. I always assumed that Coke Zero was to rival Pepsi Max, which has very similar marketing and, I’d assume, audience. You say the product and blatantly targeted advertising surprises you, but for a company like Coca Cola especially, if it can be sold, it will be made. No surprises there!

    November 6, 2011
  4. while i agree that gender advertising is silly, so is capitalism and i think that if it (gender advertising) increases the rate of consumption then its apparently good for capitalism. As we live in a capitalist societies – we more or less have to accept it as part of the system that given us (at least me in Australia) a higher (perceived) level of quality of life.

    To really get your head around gender directed advertising, pick up a women’s magazine or look down any toy isle in a department store… a fotty on a can of coke is pretty insignificant compared to the gender advertising for women and children.

    November 6, 2011
  5. Ryan Hayle #

    Funnily enough, I only started drinking Coke Zero because my girlfriend loves it so much! I wanted to add that I recently saw an advert for “Dr. Pepper Ten” which was equally if not more disgusting and sexist than the Coke Zero ads you describe: “Dr. Pepper Ten: Not for Women”
    http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/story/2011-10-10/dr-pepper-for-men/50717788/1

    I was so disgusted by the ads, yet I love Dr. Pepper so I really wanted to try it. I eventually did, but I felt quite horrible, like I was betraying my feminist ideals. I don’t want them to think their marketing worked on me just because I like the product. I really do hope this kind of marketing will backfire on these companies. It certainly reinforces my disdain for marketing people.

    November 6, 2011
    • I find those ridiculous Dr. Pepper ads kind of fascinating for some reason, perhaps because of how blatant and over-the-top they are. They strike me as more desperate than sexist (not that an ad can’t be both, of course). For as silly as the Coke Zero ads were/are, I never really got a desperate vibe from them, whereas the Dr. Pepper ads are the essence of desperation, like a grandpa trying to be hip/cool/relevant/funny/down with the youngin’s, etc.

      Also, that USA Today article says this:

      The soft drink was developed after the company’s research found that men shy away from diet drinks that aren’t perceived as “manly” enough.

      Such studies are mentioned in pretty much every article on this particular kind of gender-targeted advertising, but I can’t find any actual studies/evidence re: the “diet = girly” claim. Perhaps that’s just because the companies do their research via focus groups and don’t want it shared, but, when I started writing this blog post, I assumed that I’d be able to find some outside research to corroborate the “diet = girly” claim that is repeated over and over again. It’s a bit frustrating, as I’d like to see how the studies were done.

      November 9, 2011
  6. S D James #

    Diet soda really harmed my health. I’d stay clear away from it.

    November 6, 2011
    • How so?

      November 7, 2011
  7. The Coca Cola zero advertisements are a bit of a puzzle anyway. Take the burning cellulose shot when the ‘zero’ of the story drinks the stuff.
    The first thing that came to mind is that this was supposed to show his brain cells dying.

    November 6, 2011
  8. Any judgment on marketing techniques notwithstanding, as a loyal Coca-Cola drinker, I can attest that Coke Zero is different from Diet Coke. And it’s odd that people would describe how it is different, and yet contradict themselves saying it’s the same. I presume what these folks meant is that they share a common purpose, that of offering a Coca-Cola-based and branded zero-calorie drink.

    Changing to a black can and black box for multi-packs gets too much credit, likely from folks at Coca-Cola who want to pat themselves on the back. What probably happened is that they didn’t know how to market it. And given corporate cultures, it would probably not be surprising if there were inter-departmental rivalries going on, including for the competition for in-house advert and marketing dollars. The marketing was for all practical purposes nonexistent until they came up with the black-and-red color scheme.

    When I first saw the white boxes with “Coca-Cola Zero” I had no idea what it was and it didn’t grab me enough to try it. The graphics and the box color were actually even unappealing, and I thought it might be some gimmick like Pepsi One. I didn’t even know it was a sugar-free or zero-calorie drink. On a lark I tried it when I was out-of-town, I think because my sister said it was pretty good.

    Well, it was! It tasted much more like classic Coke than Diet Coke. I didn’t switch to it because I’m male (the cans were still white) but because it served the same purpose (that of being a zero-calorie soda) but it tasted better. Period. I thought it wasn’t going to last as a product and I couldn’t even find it where I lived. Now, when I drink Diet Coke it almost grosses me out because it’s bland compared to Zero. They may as well phase out Diet Coke.

    Whoever came up with male-based marketing is giving themselves too much credit.

    Now if they would bottle or can Fruit Punch Fanta, which I can find only in Coca-Cola Freestyle fountains, I’d be first in line.

    November 6, 2011
    • It does taste A LOT better than diet coke. I can actually stand it. I agree with everything you posted

      November 6, 2011
    • Yes, they definitely do taste different. In my post, I was just pointing out that there’s essentially no difference in the actual ingredients, though. Diet Coke has one artificial sweetener, while Coke Zero has two.

      November 9, 2011
  9. Okay, I’m a male…and I was trying to lose weight about a year ago..and I was choosing Coke Zero as my bottled drink when i was getting a 6 gram of fat or less sub at subway..but..because I thought it TASTED better than diet coke. I had tried diet coke on previous diets, and after i drank so much of it …it made me feel sick..however, I found that coke zero did not do this.. it wasn’t the packaging that it made me want to try it, it was curiosity.

    November 6, 2011
    • if you want to loose weight, drink water, not fizzy drink. none of it is good for you.

      November 6, 2011
      • This is True, and i know it..but I’m addicted to caffeine.

        November 7, 2011
      • In what way is diet soda bad for you? Most of the ill effects I know of don’t have anything to do with weight management/fitness. The acid ears away at the enamel on your teeth. The CO2 interferes with calcium absorption. It is rumored that some artificial sweeteners might be carcinogenic. I maintain a fairly high level of fitness, and I drink two or three 12 oz cans a day.

        November 7, 2011
        • “ears” = “eats”

          November 7, 2011
  10. I love that you researched and cited so much in this.

    November 6, 2011
  11. Well I joined you not tinking but could you tell more about yourself Miranda? What you work in etc etc/

    November 7, 2011
    • she’s an english professor and she loves cats.

      November 7, 2011
    • Miranda is the source of all that is good on the planet.

      Miranda was going to turn Idaho into eden, but didn’t like repeating herself.

      Miranda once cured cancer by showing it a lolcat. Only once.

      Miranda is the proof of Navier-Stokes.

      Miranda knows why the caged bird sings.

      Miranda knows why birds suddenly appear.

      November 7, 2011
  12. Out of a can? Philistine! Seriously, I’ve always found there’s a metallic taste when I drink out of a can. Both soda and beer need to be decanted into an ice-filled glass for me. My father sorta teased me about the ‘ice-filled’ bit. Apparently drinking beer that way is some kind of faux pas.

    November 7, 2011
  13. I don’t drink diet soda. I suspect it is carcinogenic, plus it stimulates your appetite. I drink just plain Pepsi or Coke. But I really like Wild Cherry Pepsi. I prefer it out of a can over ice, but I’ll drink it from a fountain in a pinch. I guess I’m out of the loop on this masculinity thing. For me, new soda drinks means “untested”. I don’t really see it as masculine or feminine, but the marketting is provocative. I see it as, “probably causes cancer in 30 years”, so I don’t drink it. But you really have to ask yourself, “Why do people drink soda?” Soda companies don’t really care if you drink it. They only care that you buy it. That is the impulse that they are stimulating, from the television commercials, to the supermarket aisles, right down to the packaging. It’s set to be purchased. I remember as a child I couldn’t stomach the stuff, but over the years I conditioned myself to kind of like it, but I’ll take a cup of coffee over a soda, any day. It’s more stimulating and it’s probably good for you.

    November 7, 2011
  14. Roger C. Harmon #

    I think there’s a male dominated trend aided by fundamentalist leanings in our government. When I see cleaning products promoted only by women then I worry.

    November 7, 2011
  15. David C #

    I find Victoria’s Secret does a lot of gender targeted advertising …. but who’s complaining? Not me! ;-)

    November 7, 2011
    • Victoria’s Secret is a really interesting example, as their products are marketed to women but their advertisements are targeted to men (I know I’m oversimplifying that a bit, but I’m sure you know what I mean).

      Whenever I get their catalog in the mail, I have an internal dialogue along these lines:

      “Whoa, that’s a boob-tastic cover. It’s kind of odd how the imagery is so obviously intended to appeal to men when the products are for women. Perhaps I should find an article on that…. ZOMG I WANT THOSE UNDERWEAR! SO CUTE! Wait, what was I thinking to myself about the marketing techniques? Ah, who cares. UNDERWEAR! MUST HAVE!!!”

      :)

      November 9, 2011
  16. Dr. Pepper has a diet version that is targeted to guys.

    November 7, 2011
  17. Real men drink Caffeine Free Diet-Coke.

    November 7, 2011
  18. I used to love the hell out of diet drinks, then I developed an intolerance for Aspartame, and so now, it’s splenda only. Sigh.

    As far as gender-targeted ads, well, they work. People can complain all they want, but they work. Look at a parenting magazine. Men show up only as:

    1) Comic Foils
    2) Less-than-competent assistants to the “real” parent
    3) The one token OMG DAD WHO CARES column.

    it’s all bullshit, (and trust me. Never, ever, ever tell a dad, especially a single one, “oh, how cute, you’re babysitting”. There’s rather a few people in Massachusetts still getting over the hellfire that unleashed on them. We. Do. Not. “babysit” our children), but it works. You market stuff for kids and families pretty much exclusively to women. Why? Because that’s how you make money. Marketing and advertising are highly results-oriented.

    November 7, 2011
    • Yeah, I try to stick to the Splenda-sweetened version of Diet Coke when I can (just because I’m pretty sure that it’s at least slightly healthier than aspartame), but it’s sometimes hard to find.

      And I guess I’m just curious about why gender-targeted ads work as well as they apparently do. I know that some of them definitely work on me. And it’s a complicated topic, as it goes beyond advertising and includes the whole “nature vs. nurture” gender question, etc. I don’t know enough about the psychology of it all, so I won’t speculate much. But it’s definitely an interesting topic.

      November 7, 2011
  19. David Fanning #

    I barely watch television and was mildly embarrassed recently when, watching TV at a friend’s house, I made fun of how ridiculous a soap commercial was because it was marketing its soap to men. I was informed that soaps are always marketed by gender. Feel like I live in a cave sometimes, but at least it’s a cave where idiotic gender distinctions aren’t made.

    November 7, 2011
  20. Well Miranda that was a good read! if the big wigs at Coke see it i think they might want you on there team!
    Kind Regards

    Karoly

    November 7, 2011
  21. Jonathan #

    I prefer fermented beverages, but my wife drinks Coke Zero exclusively. wait

    November 7, 2011
  22. David #

    Interestingly, in Britain the Coke Zero TV ad had a scenario where a beautiful young woman in a trendy beachside bar, was being hassled by a creepy middle aged “Brit” whilst her date (a handsome young American male) rescued her in a helicopter (aided by the coke zero team. Whilst that may work in other markets it was laughable here.

    November 7, 2011
  23. sean kimmins #

    God I hate advertisers..they can be creative but it’s often a case of the lowest common denominator – gender-specific is amongst the worse – “Where are you Mr. Muscle? My kitchen is dirty” “MAN Crisps” As for the Coke and Pepsi debacle, I’m frankly confused…which one has the puppet women making tiny handbags with a welding gun?How many variations can there be? I don’t drink either, I like Pussy (in England it’s a high caffeine slightly carbonated drink) but even if I had enjoyed Pepsi, or Coke,the whole “Pepsi rapists” thing turned me off for life.
    And yes, I’m aware that my choice of drink was based on nothing more than the idea of a rude joke…but the can is white! ;-)

    November 7, 2011
  24. Kekaha #

    “Mmmm…Cafe Vienna…what does it remind you of?”

    “That trip we took to Europe…and-”

    “- that cafe! oh what was the name of that waiter…?”

    ALL: “- Jean-Luc!!”

    November 7, 2011
    • Kekaha #

      Or, the yogurt commercials, with the b-words sitting around eating yogurt:

      Woman A: Mmm. This is good!
      Woman B: No. This is really good
      Woman A: This is like, private island good
      Woman B: No, this is like, long massage good!
      Woman A: First kiss good!
      Woman B: Shoe-shopping good!

      And the second commercial in the series, at a wedding:

      Woman B: This is like cute best man good.
      Woman A: No—this is like burning this dress good!
      Woman B: Never having to stand in line at the ladies’ room good.
      Woman A: Not catching the bouquet good!

      I want to say you can’t make this stuff up, but somebody evidently DID make this stuff up. Coke Zero tastes better than Diet Coke. I am a guy, but I am not a “bro.”

      November 7, 2011
  25. Functional Atheist #

    Interesting post, but I’m somewhat baffled at your bafflement.

    Gender-focused advertising demonstrably sells more product. That it can also be used to effectively target a coveted demographic is gravy. Why do you think the Coca-Cola Company is in business, if not to sell Coke products, and, moreover, to broaden their customer base to increase future sales?

    Most companies are not Apple, with some hazy goal of changing the world: they exist solely to make money. They do this by selling goods and/or services–the more, at the best margin possible, the better. Period. End of story. You’ve been in academia too long if this is in any way a surprise.

    Subjectively, allow me to add that I prefer the flavor of Coke Zero to Diet Coke. The flavor and texture (its mouth-feel is more ‘syrupy’) of Coke Zero is closer to Classic Coke, and I also like the black cans. And yes, I am a man.

    November 7, 2011
    • Most companies are not Apple, with some hazy goal of changing the world: they exist solely to make money. They do this by selling goods and/or services–the more, at the best margin possible, the better. Period. End of story. You’ve been in academia too long if this is in any way a surprise.

      Apple is actually one of the hardest-nosed companies on the planet. That product makes money or it’s gone. But, everyone THINKS Apple’s your friend, and like the smart company it is, Apple *happily* capitalizes on this.

      November 7, 2011
      • Functional Atheist #

        I did include the qualifiers “solely” and “hazy.” Meaning that I recognize that the overwhelming reason Apple exists is the same as any company’s: to make money. Their vague manifesto or ethos of changing the world (like Google’s “do no evil”) is no more than an asterisk. I have not drunk the Apple-flavored Kool-Aid, so please don’t count me among “everyone” who “thinks Apple’s your friend.”

        November 8, 2011
  26. Manly soda.

    *eyeroll*

    Well, a lot of people are extremely suggestible, and desperately latch on to whatever they’re told, by “authorities”, is the way to convey either their masculinity or femininity (or coolness, or whatever).

    But I think even the more perceptive among us are susceptible to “ad authority” because even though we know it’s manufactured, we also know most other people out there buy into it. Sort of a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” thing.

    Just my extremely layperson impression. I am, of course, only speaking (or writing) ex armchaira.

    November 7, 2011
    • 0verlord #

      When I drank a Dr. Pepper Ten, I was immediately driven to light up a whole pack of Lucky Strikes, chug a bottle of whiskey, and shoot gators and varmints out of the back of a moving pickup truck, which of course has a truck scrotum. (Query: What does that suggest of the *rest* of the truck?)

      November 8, 2011
      • OMG those truck scrotum things are so hilariously stupid! The first time I saw one, I was like “NO WAY! OMG! NO WAY! THAT GUY HAS BALLS ON HIS TRUCK?? BALLS?? BALLLLS! LOL!!!”

        And I still have a similar reaction whenever I see them :)

        November 9, 2011
        • 0verlord #

          I would be sorely amused to see a pair attached to the back of a little Japanese import.

          November 10, 2011
  27. peter #

    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!

    I wish they would use those actual words in a commercial! That would be very entertaining!

    November 9, 2011
  28. Alan Clark #

    As someone in the marketing/branding complex, I can attest to the “data” driven beliefs that are often the results of private research, but just as often the vague memory of that research or the bald-faced lie that the research was done. A lot of this research is done privately and the results of the research (regardless of methodology or the criteria used) is accepted at face value and repeated ad infinitum as canon, so long as it “sounds good.” Which, when you think about it, is the main criteria for quality in this industry anyway.

    As to the above comment that they should phase out Diet Coke, it just recently became the number two selling soda, supplanting Pepsi.

    November 11, 2011
  29. I’ve been drinking Diet Coke (egads!) for like 25 years. I tried Coke Zero once and it tasted like Tab, which i never liked. So … no Coke Zero for this dude! LOL

    November 12, 2011
  30. Nice post!

    Good grief that Pepsi Ten advert was unbelievably bad!
    like a hybrid of Yorkie chocolate and those Old Spice ads. But totally failing.

    Was just thinking that Diet Coke is also mainly aimed at older women, I suppose because it’s been around since the 80’s, Coke Zero may be preferred by younger people regardless of gender…?

    November 14, 2011
    • *by older women i mean like over 25, not old old

      November 14, 2011
  31. Michelle #

    “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?”

    Perhaps because it was the Rugby World Cup in September/October and Coca Cola was one of the official suppliers (and USA sent a team)? In New Zealand, the whole country is obsessed with Rugby and while this was a men’s sporting event, we field a pretty awesome women’s rugby team as well that participates in other events so it’s not all that gendered. Neither is the advertising for coke here, irrespective of type.

    Plus, diet coke tastes foul. It stays that way no matter how they market it. Coke Zero tastes better. That’s one woman’s perspective on it anyway.

    December 11, 2011

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