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Dave Roepke, Published January 29 2009

Super Sunday Obama-mania a bit too much

It was when President Barack Obama’s coattails curled around cans of Pepsi that I realized the overkill will soon be in overdrive.

You’ve no doubt seen the commercials for the cola that perpetually positions itself as the hipper and younger alternative to stodgy ’ol Coke.

The colors are neon bright, the circular Pepsi logo tweaked to look like Obama’s campaign symbol and the words pulled straight from the campaign – including a blatant “Yes you can.” Pun definitely intended.

The first time I saw the ad, I immediately cringed. It seemed like a tone-deaf leap on to the bandwagon, a desperate grab that’s more appropriation than appreciation. My reaction was not uncommon.

“This ad and its language come off as a ripoff. Not an homage, a ripoff,” writes David Kiley on a branding blog for BusinessWeek. “It makes Pepsi look crass.”

Pepsi’s gambit isn’t uncommon, either. Ben & Jerry’s unveiled the new ice cream flavor Yes, Pecan!, and Swedish furniture store Ikea launched an “Embrace change” motif.

That’s not even counting the avalanche of inaugural kitsch, a collection of commemoration large enough to warrant QVC starting a channel devoted to Obama.

Like the economy, this clumsy co-opting – rooted in the same psychological territory as a longing to sit by the cool kids – is sure to get worse before it gets better. American culture, in its constant quest for the next dead horse, can often look like one big game of follow the leader.

The best example of the Simon Says impulse is the dual-movie phenomenon, which inexplicably has given us competing biopics released at about the same time about subjects as disparate and obscure as Steve Prefontaine, Truman Capote and Joan of Arc.

Since President Obama is America’s first focal figure in a long time to be this dominant, to project a media glow strong enough for mass basking, expect to see advertisers continue to pile on, especially now that selling is not an easy sell. It’s odd that the nation’s commander in chief is also its biggest star, but there’s no doubt it’s true.

The best measure yet of how the sharp cultural elbows of Obama are clearing out the zeitgeist will be the Super Bowl on Sunday.

We already know NBC is trying to beef up its pre-game crowd with an interview with Obama, and I’d be happy to lay a wager on Bruce Springsteen giving the prez a nod of some sort during the halftime show.

But the real test will be the commercials. When ads go for $100,000 per second, rest assured that they represent a well-studied assumption of what interests us. I’d be shocked if Pepsi ends up being the only one shooting its Obama puns in the air.

I’d be even more shocked if the all-Obama-all-the-time hegemony doesn’t get immediately tiresome. Let the backlash begin.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Roepke at (701) 241-5535 or droepke@forumcomm.com