Coca-Cola cancels its 'You're on. Diet Coke.' campaign

In a Diet Coke ad released recently, a series of young people face nervy challenges — giving a speech, making a presentation, doing the best man’s toast at a wedding. Each has a cool, fresh pick-me-up — a Diet Coke — at their side.

Then, singer Taylor Swift is seen backstage before a concert. The stage manager steps into her dressing room and says “You’re on.” Which then echoes the tagline of the campaign: “Diet Coke. You’re On.”

But there’s a hitch. In print ads — on billboards and bus shelters — the campaign also tells short tales of young people taking risks — like moving to New York to become a DJ. Only in some of those ads, the tagline is reversed: “You’re on. Diet Coke.” And the word “Diet” appears off-baseline, in smaller red script, superimposed over a shadow from a soda can.

The result? That tagline can easily be seen as “You’re on Coke.” Which is exactly what some people pointed out and roundly made fun of. Which led to a series of parody print ads and flying tweets that adapt the drug-addled tagline to any number of dark-and-twisted up-your-nose scenarios.

“Whenever a brand puts its message out there,” says advertising professor Tony Kelso at Iona College, “if it’s open to interpretation, then they’re just asking for people to have fun with it. We’re in the age where we’re not just receiving advertising. Everybody is participating.”

Jack Myers is a media ecologist and author of the book Hooked Up: A New Generation’s Surprising Take on Sex, Politics and Saving the World. He says this generation of consumers “are digital activists who see content as a creative opportunity to express themselves and to fundamentally change the nature of the intended communication."

Myers says there’s an irony here: companies desperately want consumers to respond to, and interact with, advertising. They want them to contribute their own words and experiences about the companies' brands. They also want consumers to share — endorsements, ‘likes,’ links to ads — with friends and family. Yet, says Myers, some of those same brands are still trying to control what happens to their messaging after it’s released into the marketplace.

But he thinks that’s misguided and ultimately futile. “Advertisers just have to be comfortable being less careful,” says Meyers, “and letting the market take their messages and hack at will, and take the response with a grain of salt.”

According to the New York Times, Coca-Cola has pulled its “You’re On” campaign. The company didn’t respond to Marketplace’s request for comment by our deadline.

All the buzz and attention that Diet Coke is getting — even if some of it is negative — might be a positive for the brand. Diet Coke and the carbonated soft drink category in general need more young consumers. Those consumers are grabbing bottled water, vitamin-fortified water, juice drinks and especially energy drinks, instead of soft drinks. According to Beverage Digest, Diet Coke’s volume fell nearly 7 percent in 2013 from the year before; Diet Pepsi fell about the same amount. Diet Mountain Dew and Coke Zero have also slipped.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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