Sunday, November 20, 2005

Coke, Campbells and Content DNA

In 1979, Coke aired a commercial where a tiny, young, Caucasian boy approached an enormous, African American football player to congratulate him on a great game. After initially rebuffing the kid somewhat gruffly, the player -- Mean Joe Green -- swigs a Coke that the boy hands him in a long series of gulps, and then, made friendly (one assumes by the tingly, sweet concoction), calls the kid back and throws him his jersey. The kid shouts, "Thanks, Mean Joe!" and they share a nice moment. All courtesy of Coke.

Somewhat standard American advertising fare, sure. But it struck a nerve in the American public's mind at the time, for whatever reason. Maybe it was the contrast in size between the two -- the kid couldn't have weighed 60 lbs. soaking wet. Maybe it was that the sugar water "melted" Mean Joe's heart (I'd been told by Mr. Frost, my 7th grade Social Studies teacher that Coke could dissolve rust off a bicycle chain, so I suppose that melting an NFL player's heart is no big deal). Maybe it was a nice moment in race relations. Maybe it was a combination of all of these, or just a really well written and well shot ad.

Whatever the reason, the commercial proved so popular, that it was turned into a made-for-tv-movie, "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid."

I am not kidding. They made a movie based on a TV commercial. That's why I included the IMDB link in the preceeding paragraph. To prove it to you. When I have this conversation live, I often get the, "No freakin' way," response. Here in cyberspace, I can put my hyperlink where my mouth is.

I use this event to date the beginning of the wonderful weirdness of modern genetic content mutation.

Yes, I know. Books were made into movies and plays and musicals long before 1981. Same for songs. In fact, I'm tempted to go back and revise my date to 1976, and to the making of the movie, "Ode to Billy Joe," based on the 1967 Bobbie Gentry song of the same title. I'm tempted... but I'm not going to. "Ode to Billy Joe," is weird, yes. But songs have had stories in them, well... forever. The leap of creative evolution to take one and turn it into a movie doesn't quite do it for me in terms of calling it "mutation."

Turning a commercial into a movie though... yeah, baby... that's a mutant love child.

Was the TV movie "The Steeler and the Pittsburgh Kid" a good film? Hellll no. That's not the point. The point is that, as Forest Gump's mama might say, "Content is as content does."

If you create something that causes an effect... it can live in other media. It can mutate and change and have a effect elsewhere, if you know how to take out the pieces of the DNA that can live in another environment. Or, as I like to ask my students, "How can you put that on a T-shirt?"

I don't mean that statement literally, of course. Usually.

Andy Warhol saw pop and commercial culture as art. Ba-da-bing. Before that, pop and commercial culture had borrowed from the world of fine art, but had rarely been seen as art per se. Why not? Because the worlds of "art" and "business" were kept apart by people who stood to gain from doing so in most cases, either monetarily, psychologically or culturally. I don't mean this as harsh criticism, though it comes out as such. It's an anthropological fact, and not a judgement -- people look at the segments of the society they are given and are hard-pressed to de-segment them. Church = religion. School = education. Home = family. Art = culture. Business = economics. You play on the playground, you drive on the freeway. The white zone is for the loading and unloading of passengers only.

The problem for artists, writers, marketers and other creators, is... this kind of thinking is linear and predictable. It leads to the same place it started, often with the same results. And the same results are... well... boring. And boring is the enemy of creativity.

Mean Joe Green and Andy Warhol. Keep them in mind when you try to think of new ways to put your stuff on a T-shirt.

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