Unapologetic 7 UP

Advertising deconstructed.
May 28 2002 2:35 PM

Unapologetic 7 UP

Some weeks ago Ad Report Card addressed the debut of the new unspokesman for the lemon-lime soft drink 7 UP. A newer ad in the series has lately kicked up a small fuss, and in fact the spot is apparently no longer appearing on television. But for the moment at least, you can still see it at 7 UP's Web site (using either Windows Media Player or QuickTime).

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The ad: Godfrey, the theatrically clueless mouthpiece for the brand, addresses the camera: "They say if you're going to sell something, get yourself a captive audience." A prison gate slams shut in front of him. Godfrey is then shown walking along a row of cells, handing sodas to inmates and musing, "This place is gonna be a gold mine!" Then he drops a can, starts to bend over—but stops. "I'm not picking that up!" he says, flashing a big knowing grin. He passes an inmate who is squirreling away a can of 7 UP for safekeeping, and then he is on the wrong end of a food-throwing melee in the cafeteria. Next he sits next to a prisoner who has "Evil Ways" tattooed on his hands; Godfrey is shown to have "Lemon Lime" scrawled on his, and he says with exaggerated gravity, "I'm just trying to fit in." The spot ends with him in a cell with a scary-looking prisoner. Godfrey says, "When you bring the 7 UP, everyone is your friend!" The creep puts his arm around Godfrey and stares at him. Godfrey: "OK. That's enough being friends." And then, as his camera crew seems to be leaving him behind bars with his new "friend," he adds with mild alarm, "Where you going?"

The controversy: Mostly this is just another rehash of 7 UP's gimmick of using a spokesman who is such a dimwit that his attempts to "market" the drink are supposedly hilarious: Since 7 UP is the "uncola," it has an unspokesman presiding over an unmarketing campaign. The idea of showing up at a prison to get a "captive audience" is of a piece with this theme. Maybe you think it's funny; maybe you don't. Either way, it's just another variation of a joke 7 UP has been riding for years.

But the bit about refusing to bend over in prison and the closing scene of Godfrey nervously contemplating what form "being friends" might take behind bars—well, that got some attention. A million stand-up gags, prison dramas, and the occasional earnest news report have already made most people familiar with the notion of male rape behind bars. Nevertheless, not everyone thought it was an appropriate subject for a goofball TV ad. A spokesperson for Stop Prison Rape commented to MotherJones.com, "People would never joke about rape outside the context of prison." The soft-drink maker shrugged off such complaints with this iron logic: "The commercial was very well received by consumer audiences." In other words, prison rape is a perfect subject for a goofball TV ad. Right?

Unsorry: So far, so typical. But the latest development is that late last week 7 UP apparently changed its mind and yanked the ad, the first time the company has ever done such a thing, according to Zap2it.com. (Thanks to reader Brian Snell for sending that story.) This time someone from 7 UP explained that the folks who complained "had some very valid points about the ad being able to be interpreted a different way from what we intended."

Yeah? What possible alternative interpretation could there be for Godfrey's winking announcement that he refuses to bend over? This is standard procedure for marketers who go all out to push the boundary of taste and then plead innocence when they cross it, resorting to weasely statements that assign responsibility to no one and express regret for nothing. Still, this particular example is memorable for the double layering—the problem is "the ad being able to be interpreted" in a certain way. This is not even an admission that it ever was interpreted negatively, just that it's possible that it might have been. That's some unapology.

Rob Walker is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Design Observer and the author of Buying In.

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