Grand Theft Coca Cola

So, I’m sitting in a theater Saturday night waiting to see the midnight showing of Snakes on a Plane, and the advertising trailers are showing. A CGI-animation ad opens up with a car racing through a decrepit downtown, swerving into oncoming traffic, nearly missing pedestrians, then screeching to a halt in front of a corner store. A guy emerges, dressed in a black leather jacket and trucker shades.

And I’m thinking: What is this? An ad for some sort of video game? It looks like some vague riff off Grand Theft Auto

… which, as it turns out, it precisely is. I was watching the by-now-famous Coca-Cola parody ad, in which a GTA-style hero drinks a Coke and is so ennobled by its good vibes that he goes on a feel-good rampage that forms a direct moral inverse of the Grand Theft world: He foils a purse-snatching, returns a lost bag of bank money, gives his jacket to a homeless guy and stuffs him into a car full of hot chicks. (That latter act is particularly hilarious — a dead-on reversal of your signature move in GTA, which is ripping hapless folks out of their cars as you jack them.)

As you’d imagine, the gaming blogosphere has widely praised it as funny and witty. But I don’t think any of them have truly understood what’s so culturally epochal about that ad: It does not directly reference Grand Theft Auto. Nothing in the game mentions it by name, or even alludes to the name. No, the advertisers merely presume their audience is so familiar with GTA — including the way it looks, feels, and plays — that they can simply shoot forward to the complex visual joke.

I have to admit, I’m surprised. Probably because I frequently write about games for mainstream publications, I continually have to grapple with the fact that a lot of people — and I mean a lot, particularly anyone over the age of 30 — have no clue how GTA plays or feels, which is precisely why they believe it’s a tool precision-engineered for turning kids into homicidal urban vampires. But maybe I’m wrong. Coca Cola — hardly the most marginal, renegade corporation — has clearly polled the hell out of the youth market and decided that everybody and their dog a) knows about GTA and b) can recognize something that riffs off of its iconoclastic style.

Indeed, the Coca Cola advertising team may even understand something much more subtle: c) that the average youth realizes that GTA is a self-parodying game — i.e. that its purportedly psychotically amoral violent gameplay includes some incredibly self-mocking elements, as well as some acerbic satires of gormless politicians, rapacious capitalists, and kill-‘em-all right-wing talk-show hosts that are heard on GTA’s radio stations — and that the Coke ad thus can exist as yet merely another layer of skin to be peeled off the endlessly ironizing onion of pop culture. The ad parodies violence in a game that parodies itself.

Heh. Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton — give up. You’ve lost. Move on to fresh fodder in the culture wars. Grand Theft Auto has become wholesome.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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