20 January 2006

Polar bears and penguins

Science culture blogger Chris Mooney wonders whether he's getting needlessly worked up over the cinema ad now playing around the country in which polar bears and emperor penguins get all chummy over a bottle of Coke. (See it here, if absolutely necessary.) I share his discomfort with the confused biogeography that would suggest the two species even share the same hemisphere, let alone habitat. I also tend to let such things get under my skin when really I should just chill. As Chris and some of his commenters point out, it's just an ad.

Should we really let such offenses to basic ecology pass without comment? Maybe, like Chris, I am taking it too seriously. The New York Times has a story today the type of people who spend their days reading and writing science blogs -- reporter Stuart Elliott says we're now known as "Leonardos. " But the more I think about it, the more annoyed I get.

Part of my problem is that I don't think it's necessary to get the science wrong in order to tell a good story, attract an audience or move product. I could be way off base here, but I suspect ad execs used to have more respect for science back in the day. One piece of evidence comes to mind courtesy of the U.S. release of the "March of the Penguins" DVD. Among the special features is a classic Merrie Melodies cartoon "Eight-Ball Bunny," in which hapless Bugs tries to take an out-of-work showbiz penguin home to the South Pole -- not the North. (It's also the one in which a haggard Bogart makes several non-sequitur appearance asking if Bugs can spare a dime for an American down on his luck -- hilarious and justification enough of my monthly Netflix subscription fee.)

I know that isolated anecdotes do not a case make. But I strongly suspect that such violations of what cinematographers call verisimilitude were less common, especially when it comes to simple facts such as polar bears live around the North Pole and penguins primarily the South. (Chris is also annoyed by the ad's implication that bears would tolerate the company of a penguin rather than try to eat it, but I'd let that one go as standard anthropomorphic silliness. We're talking about animals without opposable thumbs, after all. How are they going to hold a Coke bottle?)

I recall a tour of the Coca-Cola museum in Atlanta (I know, I know, but that was before the new Georgia Aquarium, back when there wasn't much else to do in Atlanta after you'd done the CNN studio and Carter Center), and I have no memory of any similar insults to biology or physics among the hundreds of examples of a century worth of pushing Coke. The NY Times' Elliott has bit to say about the handling of science in the recent past:

To be sure, there have been previous periods when science captured the fancy of Americans who did not live or work at Cape Canaveral, the Livermore National Laboratory or Los Alamos. In the 1950's and 1960's, the space race produced a generation that said "A-O.K.," drank Tang and yearned to embody "the right stuff."

In the 70's and 80's, magazines and newspaper sections were created to chronicle the rise of personal computers and the booming interest in what was called "science fact." In 1980, Time Inc. brought out Discover magazine, perhaps the best known of those publications, which is still in business but on its fourth owner.

The difference is that now the new science publications, like SEED, are targeted only at the science geeks, Leonardos, or whatever you want to call them, instead of a larger slice of the demographic pie. Like television channels, there's a subculture, complete with media, ad campaigns and sponsored blogs, for everyone. Fair enough. But does fidelity within a niche market let the corporations off the hook outside in the wider world? I hope not.

This blog is about the fight to restore respect for reason and doubt in the larger public sphere. My hope is that I'm not writing exclusively for the converted, but these kind of developments make me wonder. That's why those hits from Southern Methodist University give me hope.

Incidentally, and if you want someone to blame, the offending ad was produced by New York's Berlin Cameron Red Cell agency, with Chris Shipman and Izzy DeBellis identified as the "creatives" responsible for the idea. Music courtesy of the Beach Boys. According to Duncan's TV Ad Land, it's the 10th Coca-Cola television ad featuring polar bears.


Anonymous Kathy J said...

Ha! It's nice to read that you haven't changed a bit. I've only discovered this blog today and can only read it when I get to town but I'm loving the rant.
I had the same reaction when I first saw that commercial. For me it begs the question of whether the boys in New York just didn't realize that the two species actually inhabit different continents or just didn't care. I fear the latter as it's all tied-in to the almighty dollar and what will look cute on TV.
I appreciate when reality is stretched creatively but obviously. The ad with the tiny hippo living in peoples closets and bathing in the dog's water dish is a great example of creatively making the point that "not everything you see on TV is real". It just bugs me when we as viewers aren't given the respect we deserve. What did Coke think - no one would notice (or worse yet-know any better)?
Mind you, when it comes right down to it, perhaps we aught to give the creators of this commercial a bit more credit. After all, in the end they have what they were after - people who would otherwise completely ignore a Coke ad talking about it. Any publicity that you remember (for whatever reason) is good publicity, right?

Keep on ranting...

2:10 AM  
Blogger The Seeker said...

Your friends that told you "It's just an ad" were right... Chill out.

5:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with you on this. This ad annoys me to no end and I frequently comment on it's laughable premise and total disregard for basic biogeographic facts. This in turn annoys my girlfriend, so you could say we're both getting torqued off by the same root cause.

10:43 PM  

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