When Daniel Joseph, a York University doctoral student studying labor and technology, found out about Coca-Cola’s GIF the Feeling promotion, he knew exactly what he wanted to make with it: a Coke-branded critique of capitalism. An accessory for Coke’s newly launched “Taste the Feeling” global ad campaign, GIF the Feeling is a website that allows visitors to fashion Coke ads by combining a stock clip with a user-provided tagline. The result can be posted to social media or downloaded as a GIF—that au courant looping animation image format. Here’s one I made to show you how it works:
Not bad, right? A playful dig at work that offers up ice cold Coca-Cola as its salve. I never should have left advertising.
As for Daniel Joseph’s historical materialist ad, it required a bit more creativity than he had expected. After selecting a clip of a throng of businesspeople racing toward the camera, he added the line “Late for late capitalism,” a pun based on the post-war, neo-Marxist idea that capitalism might yet be escaped. It’s the perfect joke for graduate students and other black turtleneck-wearers.
But it’s not such a great Coke ad. Coke’s advertising represents a lot of things, from happiness to family to refreshment. But a commentary on the hopeless march of labor toward the inevitable end of global capitalism is not a message the company would ever send across the airwaves. Workers of the world are supposed to Enjoy, not Unite.
Luckily for them, the Coca-Cola Company anticipated rogues like Joseph and planned accordingly. GIF the Feeling subjects its user-generated submissions to a filter that attempts to extract undesirable terms from each message. Running afoul of the filter produces a vaguely-worded but crystal-clear result: The offending word is deleted and the application reports that “something went wrong,” offering an opportunity to try again.
“Capitalism” was one of those words, dashing Joseph’s dream of wearing a temporary laurel amidst the marxosphere. Until he figured out that he could just add a space before “ism”—Coke had apparently forgotten to add “capital” to its filter. The result isn’t perfect, but it does what Joseph wanted more than what the Coca-Cola Company had in mind:
User-generated content has always been terrorist media. Given a little freedom even the simplest of tools becomes weaponized subversion. In 2006, an interview with a virtual real-estate magnate inside Second Life was interrupted by dozens of flying penises enterprising users had fashioned in-world. In 2012, a McDonald’s hashtag campaign inviting customers to tell their “#McDStories” got repurposed for critiques of the company’s food quality and healthfulness. A similar thing happened to the New York Police Department in 2014, when their #myNYPD hashtag was quickly overtaken by images of apparent police violence.
Brand marketing is all about controlling a message. Part of that process involves tightly regulating how brand names and symbols become associated with images, words, concepts, and ideas. This isn’t just a marketing exercise, either; it has an impact on a company’s overall market value as well. Forbes tracks the “brand value” of top companies, and the results often comprise an enormous portion of a business’s overall value. According to those estimates, Apple’s brand is worth $145.3 billion, Coca-Cola’s $56 billion, and McDonald’s $39.5 billion. Consumer goods are largely commodities, and the feeling of value, quality, character, and other intangibles has a larger impact on consumers’ buying choices than they’d like to admit.
A late capitalism gag may modestly undermine Coke’s brand message, but mostly it suggests a question: To what lengths has Coca-Cola gone to try to avoid unauthorized messages like Joseph’s? Plugging likely words into the GIF the Feeling website both confirms and confuses instinctive answers. Swear words are out, obviously. So are brand-name competitors: you can’t say Pepsi in a Coke ad. But also, weirder things. Black and white, and even yellow, but also green? All banned. Likewise igloo and key. Insults like moron, but also faith names like Mormon. What’s going on here?
To find out, we tested a 61,406-word dictionary against the GIF the Feeling’s onboard content filter. Of those terms, 3,415 (or 5.6 percent) matched, making them ineligible for use in your sharable trifle. But sheer numbers conceal something more meaningful: not the quantity but the types of language Coca-Cola considers incompatible with its brand and brand message—and ripe for use as secret lures for its least-likely advocates.
Here are some of the kinds of things you can’t say in a Coke ad, along with specific examples.
This is obvious, and the network requests GIF the Feeling sends to validate your slogan even reference a “Profanity” API. I’ll spare you the details, but rest assured that Coke doesn’t want you to say any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words, or any of many dozens more either. But things get more puritanical, too: The more modest “curses” that your Sunday school teacher might have frowned upon—jeez, heck, and hell, for example—are also prohibited.
Drugs and Alcohol
Coke is a wholesome, global family brand, and despite its historical association with cocaine, it doesn’t want anything to do with narcotics, booze, and smoking. Marijuana, cocaine, heroin, beer, wine, cigarette, and similar terms are all out. The level of specificity is uneven, however. Absinthe and whiskey and champagne are a no-go, but Pernod and scotch and prosecco are apparently okay. A whole range of slang terms for controlled substances are also prohibited: terms like herb and chronic, for example. Perhaps that’s why green made the list (it’s sometimes used as a code-word for marijuana).
Some of the sex terms you’d expect to be out-of-bounds are generally profane terms before they are sex words. Names for specific sex acts and sex-related body parts are frowned upon, whether technical (fellatio) or colloquial (head). But beyond these expected moves, Coke is fairly liberal in its sexual conservatism. Sex itself is out, of course, but also derriere, domination, bisexual, innuendo, junk, lingerie, and bikini. A series of unfortunately common words like meat and bobcat (I didn’t know that one) also come along for the ride, so to speak, no doubt thanks to their potential association with sexual situations. There’s some irony in these prohibitions, given that many of the Taste the Feeling ads (and their corresponding GIF clips) are fairly sexually suggestive.
Politics, Race, and Religion
It seems that the things you shouldn’t talk about at a dinner party are also verboten in a Coke ad. Those include political affiliations like liberal, conservative, Republican, and Democrat, but also more specific issues like homosexuality or the Confederate states.
Charged contemporary terms like infidel, Hamas, Koran, Muslim and Allah are out, but don’t think that implies that Coke is xenophobic. The company’s distaste for political and religious affiliation is profoundly equal-opportunity. Lenin is out, along with Mao, communism, and soviet. But so are bible, deacon, Christ, messiah, Jehovah, Lord, Jewish, saint, bodhisattva, and caliphate, to name just a few.
Anything that might code racially is also forbidden. Black and white, as already mentioned, but also terms like brother, Asian, Chicano, and gringo. The racial slurs you’d expect are also understandably excluded.
Brand Names and Proper Names
An advertising experience should tout the advertiser exclusively. So it’s no surprise that brand names and product names are considered “profane” from Coke’s vantage point. And not just the obvious ones, competitors like Pepsi, 7Up, or Gatorade. Coke appears to have attempted to amass a complete list of brand names from any industry. Mercedes and BMW are out. So are Heinz and Doritos. And Apple and Microsoft and Google and Android (sorry if you wanted to talk about unbranded fruit or robots in your GIF ad).
Proper names are also apparently incompatible with Coke’s branding, so if you want to celebrate drinking one in Guinea or New Hampshire (or with Che Guevara), you’re out of luck. Likewise if you enjoy a Coke while listening to Nirvana or reading Diderot. Or while reflecting on mythical creatures like the Cerberus or the Hydra.
Oh, and no talk of Bill Cosby. Yeah, that’s probably for the best.
Violence, Crime, Abuse, and Insults
Any talk of violence is out—murder, massacre, abuse, danger, death, slaughter, and so forth. Mutilation, rape, ransom, stalking and other criminal acts are likewise no good. You also can’t use Coke’s images to call people names like dope, dingus, bonehead, cow, or even hooligan. No surprises here, except for the impressive scope of the coverage.
Business and Enterprise
Coke seems to have anticipated folks like Daniel Joseph and flagged a number of terms related to business and free enterprise. We already know that capitalism shan’t be mentioned, but you also can’t talk about going to deposit your paycheck, or about taxation (or, amusingly, overtaxation). You can’t exalt or mock an adman with GIF the Feeling, nor can you talk about how social media might bourgeoisify commercial messaging. There will be no mention of any board’s chairman, nor about what a backroom lobbying effort might indemnify him from. You may not discuss licensing, nor should you ever talk about the consumer.
Health, Medicine, and Chemistry
A large number of medical and chemical terms, both general and specific, are off-limits. You probably weren’t going to mention chlorofluorocarbon or aliphatic compounds anyway, but better safe than sorry. Somewhat more colloquially, arsenic and benzene also have no place in a Coke ad.
And almost anything associated with health or medical issues runs afoul of Coke’s filter: conditions like blindness, dementia and diabetes; diseases like Ebola and gangrene and herpes; anatomical stuffs like blood and collarbone; even a minor condition like an itch or a salve like a lozenge. And don’t even think of reflecting on sugar water’s healthfulness, that’s a recipe for GIFlessness.
Food and Drink
Some alimentary terms make sense to exclude, from Coke’s perspective. Talk of fattening foods like lard or of additives, for example. But then things start to get weird. Very specific foodstuffs have also found their way into the Coca-Cola profanity database. Asparagus and celery are off-limits (because they are healthful? Maybe, but broccoli is ok). If you like to wash down your taco with a cold bottle of The Real Thing, you’ll have to do it on your own time. Coffee and couscous are forbidden, as is the crawdad and the gingersnap. Likewise kefir and pumpernickel. It’s a real problem if you compose your GIF while standing famished in the kitchen, both of which you also can’t say.
Soft Drink Terms
More specifically, terms associated with soda and soft drinks are also off-limits. That includes cola, caffeine, caramel (as in color), the coca leaf, fizz, froth, and other words for carbonation (including, yes, carbonation). Belch is disallowed (but burp is apparently okay). The controversial chemical sweeteners aspartame and saccharin are proscribed. My favorite obscure prohibition is acacia, a tree whose sap is made into gum arabic, an emulsifier used in soda.
Negative Connotations (and Everything Else)
Many other terms bear undesirable negative associations that a brand like Coca-Cola just doesn’t want anywhere near officially-endorsed communications: coffin, corpse, disgust, fart, deplorable, and gross are obvious, but one has to admit that even seemingly innocuous terms like inchworm, junket, and peasant just don’t jibe with Coke’s well-honed image.
Still, some prohibitions betray sense. What does the Coca-Cola Company have against the mild-mannered saxophonist? Why may one not drink Coca-Cola in a canoe? What does Coke have against being courageous or winning a championship? I can see why immigration or might be a topic of concern, but keycard? Why may one not refresh oneself whilst recording an echogram or deploying the ideogrammatic capacities of emoji? Perhaps we’ll never know.
In that respect, GIF the Feeling’s Profanity API embodies an unusually detailed apophatic brand position, a declaration of brand value by exclusion rather than inclusion. It tells us everything that Coke thinks it isn’t. Not sloppy or brazen, to be sure, but also not perky or divergent. Technophiles and believers might enjoy a Coke, but they ought not associate the beverage with gizmos or with God. And strange as these interdictions seem individually, when taken together they kind of make sense. Coca-Cola is over 130 years old, and like an old oak or an aged whiskey it has developed a character that can’t easily be summarized.
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There’s a question left unanswered after analyzing part—and perhaps just a small part—of the GIF the Feeling Profanity API: Why would a company like Coca-Cola go to such seemingly enormous effort to produce an ultimately futile censor for a largely forgettable online-media campaign? We asked, and a Coca-Cola Company spokesperson offered this response:
Our intention is to invite people to share their feelings in a positive and uplifting way as they discover our new ‘Taste the Feeling’ campaign. We have safeguards in place including filters and moderation to help ensure ‘GIF The Feeling’ is being used for its intended purpose. We continue to review and refine our monitoring processes around the world, and we hope people continue to ‘GIF The Feeling’ to create fun and joyful connections with friends and family.
Coke’s in a tough position. Even acknowledging the existence of content filtering puts them off-message, distracting from the intended purpose of the Taste the Feeling campaign: to produce and disseminate brand-compatible “feelings” under the banner of its logo and products.
But the Internet is no place for talk of “intended purpose,” either. The Internet is a giant cat that chews up intended purpose and makes videos of itself hacking them up again. The output of GIF the Feeling not only risks correlating the Coke brand and messaging with undesirable associations, it almost demands such an outcome. Attempting to subvert the gizmo (sorry, Coke!) is among its most appealing uses. And even if the Profanity API successfully clobbers some irreverent efforts, savvy users will always find workarounds. They can take a screenshot of the supposed failure and use that as their social-media content. Or use typographical work-arounds like Joseph’s. Here’s another, similar example by Daniel Kibblesmith, a Late Show with Stephen Colbert writer:
Given the ease with which a brand-new global advertising campaign can be turned into a Nietzchean will-to-power dystopia, why tempt fate with user-generated content at all?
Despite the obvious danger of opening the door to negative associations, marketers also want to take advantage of any and all channels to reach potential customers. Shifts in media habits, such as the decline of television viewership and the rise of streaming, social media, and apps worry the brand managers and chief marketing officers in charge of big consumer products like Sprite and Egg McMuffin and Charmin. So even if social-media- and web-based campaigns that invite user-participation are risky, it’s even riskier to opt-out of advertising techniques that might be successful.
But what would “success” mean for such a campaign, anyway? Writing in the Financial Times last year, Ian Leslie persuasively argued that the supposed brand engagement provided by interactive and social-media features actually produces the opposite of what a consumer brand really wants to get out of advertising. Leslie cited another soft-drink company’s example: the 2010 Pepsi Refresh Project, a kind of American Idol for user-submitted social improvement campaigns. Here’s Leslie’s analysis:
The Refresh Project accomplished everything a social-media campaign is supposed to accomplish: millions of Facebook likes and thousands of new Twitter followers. But it didn’t sell Pepsi. Pepsi Cola and Diet Pepsi both lost about 5 percent of their market shares over the course of the year—a calamitous decline. The brand returned to TV. Bob Hoffman, a veteran American adman who blogs as the Ad Contrarian, has gained a large following for his savage critiques of digital hype. After Pepsi Refresh, he concluded, “only zealots and fools will continue to bow down to the gods of social media.”
The typical consumer, Leslie explains by way of Byron Sharp, a marketing-science professor and author of the book How Brands Grow, is not someone who feels particular brand affinity for Pepsi or Coke such that engagement with the Refresh Project or GIF the Feeling would serve as a renewed vow to the brand. Nor is that typical consumer someone like Daniel Joseph, who sees Coke as a stand-in for any commodity under global capitalism that might serve as the butt of a joke shared with—let’s face it—people who still might be sipping at a Diet Coke when they read it.
No, the typical consumer buys and drinks a Coke (or a Pepsi, or any other consumer good) only occasionally, without thinking much about the brand or the purchase at all. Given those conditions, Sharp suggests that the best thing a consumer-goods company can do is to help new or infrequent consumers remember their brand at the opportune moment for purchase. As Leslie puts it, “By keeping the brand alive in your mind, Coke ads change the probability of you buying it in the next year by a minuscule proportion, a nudge so small that you almost certainly won’t notice it.”
And isn’t it possible that GIF the Feeling might perform exactly the nudges that Byron Sharp says are critical to occasional conversion to purchase? Not by enforcing Coke’s core brand values and thereby deepening brand engagement, as Ian Leslie argues is pointless anyway, but by inching the Marxist and Nietzshean screwballs like Joseph and Kibblesmith just a tiny bit closer to selecting a Coca-Cola product when the opportunity arises.
Even if Joseph thinks Coke is an example of the worst kind of consolidated global ownership of a public good like hydration, now Coke has at least facilitated an instance of that sensibility for him. And for his compatriots, too, whose motivations are invisibly nudged as Joseph’s Coke-facilitated-yet-subversive messages quietly reach the Twitter and tumblr apps on smartphones near Coke-bearing points of purchase.
On this front, GIF the Feeling does something very smart: It avoids creating and auto-filling a hashtag for the campaign’s social-media posts, as so many marketers think they should do these days. That means that unlike the #McDStories and #myNYPD fiascos, there’s no one-click trick to finding all of the feelings (legitimate and subversive) that people GIFed with Coke’s tool. Instead, you have to happen across them at random like I did with Joseph’s and Kibblesmith’s. And once you do, those images function as private endorsements as much as—or even more than—private sabotages.
As for the hypothetical damage to brand image achieved by these acts, social-media brand snafus are so frequent now that the moralizing outrage against them sometimes feels worse than the supposed blunders. The coolest brands are the ones who accept and embrace the inability to control messages online—even as they make every effort to exert that control—in order to hunt the Internet wilderness for secret converts. The Taste the Feeling campaign goals even allow for it: “offering consumers whichever Coca-Cola suits their taste, lifestyle, and diet.” Everybody drinks a Coke sometimes, even radical Marxists and Nietzschean nihilists.
If anything, the Profanity API is misnamed. It’s not there to protect Coke from its consumers’ misdeeds. Instead, to help create them—and then to transform them back into advertisements. It’s a Joker API, but ultimately the joke’s secretly on the supposed joker. And aptly, “joker” is a word you can’t use in a DIY GIF the Feeling advert.