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Monday, April 12, 2004
Originally from NPR's All Things Considered (in an edited form), Tuesday, March 9, 2004
By Paul Ford
The Gray Album and carbonated soda.
Next time you're at the store, get a Pepsi bottle off the shelf and tilt it exactly 25 degrees. If you see the word “Again,” as in “Please try again,” that bottle is not a winner in Pepsi's latest contest. So you can put it back, and get another bottle. It's not much to win: a song on iTunes is worth about 99 cents, and you still have to buy the Pepsi. A few years ago, this would have been a secret, passed around by word of mouth, but now it's all over the web, complete with a helpful diagram showing the exact angle of tilt.
I really enjoy seeing a corporate plan destroyed. The Internet's great at this, little packets of subversion flapping around the ether. A better and bigger example than the Pepsi tilting is The Grey Album, the remix of The Black Album by rapper Jay-Z and the Beatles' White Album. EMI, the Beatles' record company, has stopped The Grey Album from being distributed, even though it's hard to see how DJ Danger Mouse is going to hurt Ringo and Sir Paul (not to mention John and George). Because EMI has made the album illegal, it's become precious, even though musically it's interesting-but-not-all-that-great. Now you can find it all over the Internet as MP3s, hidden away in secret places and shared on P2P networks.
What we drink, what we listen to, what we drive. Advertisers write so many scripts for our lives. We're just not always willing to stick to our lines. Pepsi had an idea about this contest, how you and I were going to behave. In fact, they only expected 10 to 20% of the people finding winning caps to claim them on iTunes. EMI has a script for us, too, regarding how we listen to the Beatles. If we veer away, we're in trouble, litigation for everyone. Or there's Volkswagen, who want us to identify with their cast of happy hipsters with trimmed bangs. Or Microsoft, who expect us to be so enthusiastic about office work that we leap into the air. Following these scripts and being a consumer can get a little grim and monotonous.
Of course we're not just consumers—we're people, and we do more than buy. (I hope.) Sometimes we get together and march off the spreadsheet. We drop the script and start improvising, and the campaign managers just have to lump it. Because, sadly for those who manage the brands, human beings care much more about their own fun than about the sacred rights of Mighty PepsiCo. It's the slosh heard round the world, as people tilt their soda bottles 25 degrees, and it's the sound of Jay-Z and George Harrison together at last. These aren't sounds of rebellion-it's just that people won't always march in step. At least not until someone perfects the advertising brain ray.