A good essay discussing George Michael’s Diet Coke commercial by Barbara Lippert published in Chicago Tribune on February 10, 1989
Recording phenomenon George Michael is not a hold-up-the-can-and-sing-kind of guy. He wouldn’t think of adapting his own song lyrics to advertise Diet Coke. (Although it might have been nice, after “just for the fun of h, just for the heck of it,”, to have’ added “just for the I-want-your-sex-of itDiet Coke.”) Instead he seems to have agonised over every moment and frame in this new commercial. And in its slow, abstract, tortured way, the spot deals with success, fame and art
That’s not easy, and the Coca-Cola Co. deserves high marks for venturing into new territory. When was the last time major angst was brought to you by Diet Coke? Compared to the aw-shucks sunny previous stuff, this is Bertolt Brecht.
The spot begins with the unexpected flamenco music of the Gipsy Kings and the unexpected opening shot of a bullfighter. Shots of handsome young matador X preparing for the ring are then intercut with scenes of handsome young George Michael getting ready to kill an audience.
Michael, who gets coproducing, editing and directing credits for the spot, hides behind a concept that seems pretentious and flawed but is still quite revealing. Is he suggesting that singing for the millions of young fans who’ve made him rich and famous has the life and death struggle, the blood, the violence, the gore of slaying a bull? And if, that’s the case, why increase the martyrdom by doing a Diet Coke commercial?
If the rock star/bullfighter metaphor works at all, it has to do with acts of ceremony and ritual which seem to obsess George Michael but come with doing any hard act expertly. The shots of the bullfighter, however, are more forthcoming: From the beginning, he faces the camera directly and is captured in intense, sun-lit color; by contrast, our rock star is color-drained and shadowy. In the best Michael Jackson Pepsi-commercial tradition, we see him fully for only the last few seconds. Instead, we see his star signs: the spurs on his cowboy boots, the gleaming cross, the studded leather jacket. Like Michael Jackson’s glove, these become double-edged: They hide and protect as they hype and glorify.
The spot builds slowly and tortuously, going back and forth from flamenco music to Michael’s music, from color to dark shadows. George Michael’s ambivalence about the whole deal shows in the erratic pacing. In the end, he sings two lines: “Just give me a break, why don’t you give me a break, now.” But there is a pay-off, finally: a shot of George Michael’s full face, actually smiling and a terrifically strong synthesized sound underscoring the shot of the logo.
Of course, this spot is hardly the first to make use of a bullfighter, metaphor. Hemingway overdid it and everyone copied him; a series of Guess? jeans ads were set in a bull ring; the Spanish director Pedro Almodovar’s movie “Matador” equates bullfighting with sex and death. But for kids who are new to montage and metaphor, this just might be the really cool thing.
Barbara Lippert critiques advertising for Adweek magazine.
- George Michael is Looking for Respect (Detroit Free Press, 1988)
- George Michael Interview with Capital FM Radio with Dr. Fox (Dec 1998)
- Wham! Interview: The Odd Couple (Sounds, 1983)
- George Michael Interview on Q Magazine (December 1998)
- ‘George Michael, Seriously’ from Rolling Stone Magazine (1988)