The Coca-Cola Kid and the Corporate Comforts of Selling Out
Product placement is so ubiquitous in modern life that it's practically come to define it. Futurama said it best – we're basically just one step away from having paid ad space in our dreams. Even the mere sight of certain ads and franchises have gone from eye-sores to full on comforts for us. Think of how many people pay hundreds to thousands of dollars to travel to New York and then stand in Times Square - an "iconic" city center that's devoid to all life except for massive LED shrines to advertising. And right smack dab in the middle of it, summing up the definition of iconic corporate Americana, is Coca-Cola.
Coca-Cola flaunts its status as the product placement king, all the while happily preaching about their cultural importance. Coca-Cola's website proudly boasts about their influence, invoking Coke's "supporting role" in movies from King Kong to The Breakfast Club. They even take it a step further to some slightly stranger examples, such as Bonnie and Clyde or even Blade Runner:
[Ridley] Scott featured a Coca-Cola neon sign in his 1982 sci-fi thriller, Blade Runner. “The message being,” he explained, “that even in a futuristic dystopian world, Coca-Cola is everlasting.”
Uh, I'm not too sure Coca-Cola is completely getting why that's not totally a positive thing but okay. Funny enough, while this article briefly mentions the concept of product placement, it's only to say they didn't initially need to purchase it because, gosh, Coke was just such a part of the American way of life. The truth is that soda companies helped lead the way for modern day product placement in movies, never mind the fact that Coca-Cola actually bought Columbia Pictures in the early '80s. To be fair, that purchase was technically for reasons beyond just product placement, but it certainly helps set the stage for an interesting flop of a film that came out a few years after: Dušan Makavejev's The Coca-Cola Kid (1985).
Ah yes, who better than Black Wave arthouse director Dušan Makavejev, best known for the sugar-mixed-with-bodily-fluids avant-garde Sweet Movie, to tackle the subject of corporate American take over? Well seeing the mixed reviews and minuscule profits of this one, maybe a couple of people, but personally I don't know why people seem to hate on The Coca-Cola Kid. So as is my fashion of defending movies I feel have been unfairly judged by time, let's get into it. It's my suspicion that the reason this movie got such a mixed reception outside of Cannes is due to the fact that, while we'll rarely admit it, subconsciously we all love our advertising overlords.
Eric Roberts stars as Becker, the wunderkind of Coca-Cola Company's headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia. Becker arrives at a Coca-Cola subsidiary in Sydney, on a mission to help optimize operations and double their profits in Australia. Becker is the embodiment of American can-do capitalism – all bleach-blonde hair, domineering presence and pent up energy – and he's slightly horrified by the relatively laid-back atmosphere he finds in Australia. From the secretary Terri (Greta Scacchi), who slinks around the office wide-eyed and half barefoot, to the sweaty executives and managers who don't have what Becker deems the appropriate Coca-Cola spirit or drive.
While looking at their market penetration, Becker identifies one tiny area in Australia that seems to have thus far eluded the long arms of the Coke. The Australian executives tell him it's a lost cause, but he refuses to take no for an answer and takes it upon himself to get out there to proselytize those poor lost consumers. As it turns out, the town is all but run by a man named T. George McDowell (Bill Kerr), who makes and markets his own brand of local soft drink. Despite Becker turning the business man charm up to 11, McDowell has zero interest in allowing any Coca-Cola product into his valley, let alone allow any Coke representative to walk on his land. He sends hit men after Becker and even takes a shot at him himself when he catches Becker spying.
Becker goes back to Sydney to reevaluate his plan of attack, focusing his energy instead on trying to find the "Australian sound" and bottle it up for a new commercial. (Written and performed by Tim Finn of Split Enz and Crowded House, it's a genuinely excellent guitar and didgeridoo jingle.) He also gets tangled up with Terri, whom he initially flat out rejects after fending off some aggressive flirtation towards him, and then later fires because of her unprofessional attitude. She retaliates by setting up Becker at a party, sending men in drag to flirt with him and then taking blackmail photos. But even after his brush with such 'terror' (he ends up crying on her young daughter's bed), he still helps throw Terri's drunk husband out of the house, so she goes back to aggressively pursuing Becker.
Eventually T. George McDowell shows up at the Coca-Cola office in Sydney to propose a plan – merging their two companies to create a new product called "McCoke." Becker politely rejects him, instead reasserting the Coca-Cola supremacy by sending in an army of red trucks driven by people dressed as Santa Claus to McDowell's valley. Insulted by this marketing invasion, McDowell in turn decides he'd rather blow up his entire factory than submit. He extends an invitation to Becker for a midnight meeting in order to lure him inside for the big explosion.
The Coca-Cola Kid is a genuinely strange film, and I can see why it confused audiences who most likely came in expecting a straight forward satire, and received about six different options. It's not what you expect – it has elements of a slapstick comedy and a romantic comedy, with elements of a supremely dry satire on identity, and it all comes together in the end with some dead-serious economic and political criticism. The film's a critique of both Americans and Australians, on religious-like marketing zealots, on capitalism and libertarianism, brand loyalty in place of nationalism or perhaps the intrinsic link between the two. In some ways, it's a spiritual cousin to Lindsey Anderson's economic allegory O Lucky Man!, with Eric Roberts in place of Malcolm McDowell and Tim Finn in the role of Alan Price.
At its heart, The Coca-Cola Kid is a movie about viewing branding as an invasion. As we've largely replaced religion with capitalism, so have we turned to marketing to enforce nationalistic supremacy and fight our cultural battles. The level of money, strategic planning, intelligence gathering, and shady dealings that happen when companies aggressively market a product is equal in scale only to actual war. In The Coca-Cola Kid, Becker not only proudly wears his ex-military experience on his sleeve, but a running joke throughout the film is that he's continually mistaken for a secret CIA agent by a mysterious hotel waiter.
Becker treats capitalism as the trenches: a space where everybody must conform to rigid standards, and all men must carry out whatever tactics are necessary to make the sale – including flying a one man plane into the outback and living in the mountains in order to spy on a competitor. Becker has zero tolerance for women in his sphere, as well as a fear of homosexuality that borders on closeted self-denial. He also has an inability to express any emotions except when he's alone with a little girl and when he's playing around with a mouse he finds in his hotel room.
I was surprised to read how much Eric Roberts got shit for his acting in this movie, because I thought he was absolutely brilliant. He's not a bad actor, he's just playing a man who is dead inside. Becker has no meaning to his life other than Coca-Cola and the ethos of consumerism. You expect him to grow, but he doesn't have the capacity to see life through any other structure. By the end of the film, he seems disillusioned with the intensity of the human loss from what he thought was "just" business; the concept that somebody would rather die and destroy their life's work than to fully sell out and conform is baffling to him. But instead of this revelation shattering his world view, he instead chooses to settle for the other American dream: a large sum of cash, a house wife and a child. Swing and a miss.
Greta Scacchi's Terri is another interesting character. In a lot of ways she's a pretty grating character; she acts more like an animal in heat than an adult woman and she has multiple scenes of full frontal nudity that range from creepily inappropriate to unnecessary. But Terri represents the untamed yokel who, unlike her father, is completely seduced by the American dream. Her relationship to Becker is pretty toxic, he is constantly berating her and screaming at her, but she can't seem to shake the desire to please him. She's constantly trying to be close to him, to touch him, to hide in his office, to hide in his trucks, to hide in the Santa uniform, to hide her roots with the cover of Coca-Cola, and yet he hates her for it at every turn. She hates him too at various points throughout the film, but she can't help herself; she wants to destroy Becker but she also wants to embody him. It's quite telling that the only time Becker gives in to her desires and sleeps with her is when he sees her dressed up in the Coca-Cola colors.
There's also a general question of authenticity throughout the film. It's no mistake the movie is set in Australia, with the outback being seen as one of the last untamable frontiers, striking up parallels with the classic image of the now-tamed American west. Despite the fact that the McDowell branded soft drink is quite literally Australian made and produced, it's still seen as inferior to the global Coca-Cola corporation – which is trying so hard to be seen as legitimate it has an office that overlooks the famous Sydney Opera House. Then there's Becker's search for the "Australian sound," where he gathers a group of musicians and interrogates them on their stance towards America before allowing them to sing a song with lyrics like: "Don't wanna go where there's no Coca-Cola / You got life by the throat when you're drinking Coke / Choke back the tears when there's no Coca-Cola." The movie ends with scenes of mice running around in a dollhouse and a song about looking for a home, all of which undercuts this otherwise happy ending to feel supremely superficial. There's also some ominous text about "A week later... While cherries blossomed in Japan the next World War began." Capitalism rages on, the world turns.
In a time where we're making cash-grab movies based on anything from arcade video games, five-minute-long theme park rides, poop emojis and plastic toy companies, our obsessive belief in brand loyalty has sky rocketed. We've turned Steve Jobs into a deity, strategically overlooking his flaws to reenforce his status as a business genius. Marvel, DC Comics and the Star Wars franchise have all expanded from mere entertainment into lifestyle brands. Coca-Cola similarly sees themselves as "part of the landscape" instead of just a beverage company. The Coca-Cola Kid came out in the mid '80s, a time where Reaganomics reigned and technology was rapidly changing. I wonder if perhaps the negative reactions to this film in the 1980s happened because the audience was too close to the source. By making a movie dressed up as a huge commercial for Coke, Makavejev is trying to give you the branding that you want so the medicine will go down. But we tend to become self-concious when presented with such branding out of context. Like Terri, we might intellectually hate the steamrolling power of big corporations, but we just can't stop ingesting their products. Trying to hide a vitamin in the sugar isn't going to make you stop eating the sugar as much as it just makes you hate the vitamin.
While there's a comedically overly long disclaimer at the beginning of this film, it's rather telling that Coca-Cola didn't sue the shit out of Makavejev for this film. Perhaps they felt that at the end of the day, this heartwarming story of Coca-Cola coming out on top as an ambassador of the American way of life was brand positive? Yikes.