I don’t own a television. This is not out of any particular principle: we had one back in the UK, but just never got around to buying one here in Canada. So I’ve never been in the Canadian media loop, and have never missed it. Plus I have plenty of other ways of distracting and/or entertaining myself, not least watching television shows that just happen to be packaged in convenient DVD packages.
So with the Olympics, and even though I really didn’t see very much of it, I have been watching much more television than usual. And what strikes those of us who are not accustomed to it (or what strikes me perhaps even more particularly given my long exposure to the BBC) is less the programming, which I can get by other means, than the adverts. There are so many of them. And they are often so very odd.
There are two current adverts that were played throughout the Olympics that I find particularly strange, and particularly disturbing. And at the risk of this blog becoming (almost) all Canada (almost) all of the time, I note that they are both selling, in part, images of Canadian national identity. Or rather, they rely for their success on certain images of Canada that are dear to this country’s inhabitants.
The first of these ads is this one, for Tim Hortons, the Canadian coffee chain. It’s discussed, among other places, on Darren Barefoot’s blog. Frankly I still can’t quite get my head around it, except to say that I think it is truly appalling.
The other ad is this one, for that rather recognizeably US brand, Coca Cola:
I find this extraordinary, too.
The commercial purveys a sense of Canadian identity tied up with sport, specifically hockey, and the rituals and memories that go with that: from playing street hockey to watching a game at school, going out to a bar, or seeing a match live. The Canadianness of this progression, or rather the way in which this is precisely an apprenticeship in Canadianness, is emphasized with images of flags and maple leaves and the consistent presence of red and white highlights. Of course, it is only gradually (and more obviously at a second viewing) that you realize that the most ubiquitous of these red highlights are those associated with Coca Cola: this is an ad about becoming Canadian by growing up with coke as well, if not more than, growing up with hockey. So we are to associate Canadianness equally with coke and with hockey: they form a nexus by which the viewer is to interpret his (or her) progression from child to adult.
But the odd thing is the ad’s punchline: As the camera flies across an ice rink towards the goal, as though the viewer were put in the position of either a speeding player or indeed the puck itself, and as the music reaches a crescendo, with cheering in the background and a cutaway to three women in red raising their index fingers, we see spelled out between us and the goal the text: “Let’s make sure everyone knows whose game their playing.” We then cut to an overhead scoreboard on which we see coming into view… the iconic Coke bottle and the words “Coca Cola” repeated (for good measure) four times.
Again, I find this very strange. The advert works in so far as it takes for granted the fact that any Canadian is going to be able to answer the implicit question: Whose game are they playing? Why, hockey is Canada’s game of course!
(The truth of this assertion, by the way, is as far as I can see very far from certain; in fact, of the NHL’s famous “original six” teams, for instance, only two were from Canada, the other four all being from the US.)
But precisely because the ad’s ideal viewer already knows the answer to this question, they are likely to misrecognize the answer that the ad itself seems to give to that question. For though the ad provides implicit acknowledgment of the contention that hockey is Canada’s game, this is not what it actually says. Rather more explicitly, the answer it appears to provide to the question “Whose game are they playing?” is, well, that it is Coca Cola’s game.
Now, we can perhaps understand this assertion two ways in so far as the ad is suggesting an absolute identification between Canada and Coke. Hockey is Coca Cola’s game because it is Canada’s game, and perhaps even vice versa. The circular identification between viewer, soft drink, and country is now complete: the viewer identifies with Coca Cola through his identification with Canada (and again, perhaps even vice versa). This is what the commercial appears to be trying to achieve. But this is surely a hard sell. For after all, what product is more fully identified with the USA, notionally the country whose claim to hockey is here being denied (though when was the last time that a non-US team won the Stanley Cup, I feel like asking), than Coca Cola? Coke is the quintessential product of American modernity. Why else do they call Americanization also “Coca Colonization”?
The other possible reading is an absolutely post-ideological one: the advert is telling us that hockey belongs to Coca Cola because, well, corporate interests have now fully bought up what is imagined to have once been the kind of communal organic activity that the ad’s narrative initially suggests. Indeed, finally the story that the commercial most explicitly is telling is this: you grow up playing hockey, and thinking it is your sport, that it is a pastime that defines you and your imagined community; but then at some point you come to the realization that it isn’t yours, it’s been bought by corporations such as Coca Cola. They own it now, and don’t you forget it.
Of course, this is a familiar narrative, too, and you wouldn’t have to press a Canadian hard to hear it: they’d talk about “the trade” or about the opening of hockey in Sunbelt markets in the US while it is taken from hockey-mad cities such as Winnipeg. Any Canadian worth their salt can despair at the corporate takeover of their sport, and at the evils of the NHL’s presiding commissioners that have allowed it to happen. (Such complaints, too, make up Canadian national identity.)
What’s strange is to see one of those corporate interests telling this same story, too.