Here’s the News, Which is Coke.

Andrew Belonsky :: Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010 6:30 pm

Sigh. No wonder journalism’s in the pits: MSNBC, USA Today and at least one hundred other outlets and websites are harping on how Coke mixed with Mentos can propel a “rocket car.” That car’s sponsored by Coca-Cola itself, and offers a glimpse of how deep branding has burrowed into our lives.

I first heard about this story on MSNBC, not 40 minutes ago, when their anchor teased into a commercial, “Are coke and Mentos an alternative energy?” I looked up, briefly, to see a professional-looking video of a man on some rocket car, chased by a companion.

Apparently all of my ramblings about marketing have taught me nothing, because I thought, for a split second, something along the lines of, Oh, maybe it’s a set of MIT-grads who are savvy enough to produce a professional looking video. Turns out, I learned, the display was just a marketing campaign for Coke Zero, directed by none other than the Fast and the Furious’ Rob Cohen.

This entire “alternative energy” epic started innocently enough: Fritz Grobe and Stephen Voltz experimenting with common treats and seeing what energy they could produce. Soon their YouTube broadcasts blew up and David Letterman came calling. They were legitimate news, yet Coke kept mum.

Tim Kopp, a Coke marketing guru, told Business Week in 2007, “Initially, we didn’t have anything to do with the Diet Coke/Mentos video, but the next thing you know it’s on the talk shows and all over the Internet.” As the fame grew, so did Coke’s appetite for the attention, and the company soon approached the scientific stars. “[Viral marketing] will happen with you or without you,” Kopp said three year ago. “It was a chance for us to point a spotlight at them.” And the company, too.

Of course this Mentos and soda experiment isn’t new: people have been trying it for decades. Hell, even The Simpsons have suggested that Buzz cola and Mentos can make a rocket pack. The only difference with Grobe and Voltz is that they’re being backed by a global corporation. And good for them: they should make some money for all their efforts. But this has gone too far.

Like MNSBC, USA Today also went with a “clean fuel” tease, and ran the headline, “Mentos mixed with Coke Zero offers new clean fuel alternative.” The Associated Press ran with, “Rocket science: Mentos, Coke Zero propel vehicle.” MSNBC’s website chose a similar tag. It’s disheartening, though, that this business has been presented as “news.”

I suppose sometimes it really hits you, and I’m again realizing that we live in a world in which brands rule all. Marketing has tricked people into thinking this is news. Yes, Grobe and Voltz should be admired for their tenacity, and perhaps one day a similar design will change the world. In the meantime, it’s misleading to present business deals as potential innovation. Next thing you know we’ll have a story called a story called “Israel/Palestine Reach Peace,” sponsored by The Twilight Zone.