A poet is a poet. But sometimes, she's also an advertising copywriter.
On Super Bowl Sunday, just before the fraught culture-warfare drill of the National Anthem, Coca-Cola is airing an animated commercial showing people from different backgrounds—a farmer, an astronaut, Sasquatch—communing over soda pops.
It doubles as a homily. "A Coke is a Coke is a Coke," the narrators say. "It's the same for everyone. … Don't you see? Difference is beautiful. And 'together' is beautiful too."
The ad riffs on an Andy Warhol maxim: "A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking." But converting it into an oblique commentary on anthem protests and presidential backlash? That's Wieden+Kennedy, the Portland ad agency that has increasingly pressed social-justice messaging into its sales campaigns. (Most famously, it made Colin Kaepernick—who first took a knee during the anthem—into the new face of Nike.)
Where do they come up with this stuff? They have a poet.
Becca Wadlinger has a doctorate in poetry from the University of Houston and a book of poems coming out this November. Wadlinger, who lives in Northeast Portland, is also a W+K writer, penning spots for Nike, Chiquita bananas and Coca-Cola. Her Super Bowl spot for Coke last year was the first to recognize the gender identity of a non-binary person by using the singular pronoun "they."
A week before the game, WW asked Wadlinger to describe creating poetry for a football game and whether she thinks soft drinks can be used to promote diversity. She responded—naturally—in writing.
WW: What's the biggest difference between writing a poem for yourself and a poem for Coke?
Becca Wadlinger: When I write poems for brands, I have something to communicate clearly, and I write in their voice. For Coke, the voice is human and optimistic and has that playful fizz. It's fun!
When I write for myself, things get weird. It's my voice, which is imaginative and dark and surreal. My poetry is often associative, moving from one thought to another, not giving a direct line of communication. I think it'd be hard to tell the same poet wrote both. But my first collection (Terror/Terrible/Terrific) is coming out in November, so if you're interested, you can see for yourself.
You're writing a poem for the Super Bowl. What's the first step you take?
I just led a "Super Bowl 101" workshop for a class of 5th-6th grade students that we hosted at W+K last week, and my first step to making a Super Bowl commercial was "have an idea." Then I attempted to give a good definition of what an idea is, and things got a lot trickier. For this year's commercial, we had an Andy Warhol quote about Coke being the great equalizer floating around, and that inspired our initial thinking.
Andy Warhol had puckish views about advertising. What do you think he'd make of this ad?
I, too, have puckish views about advertising. Actually, a lot of people here do! I remember someone once told me that W+K's magic agency formula was (and I'm paraphrasing here) "half ad-loving freaks, half ad-hating punks." That's always stuck with me.
I don't know what Warhol would think of the ad. But part of me thinks he'd raise an eyebrow knowing that he's still influencing culture over 30 years after his death.
Your commercial last year gained notice because it was the first to use "they" as a pronoun during the Super Bowl. Do you see your work as a way to promote greater equity and justice?
Justice, no. Empathy, absolutely. Representation matters. I like work that reflects the world honestly and shows people of all kinds. It's a simple thing to do and it means so much.
How do you go about achieving a balance between those goals and, well, selling Coke?
It's easier to do when you have a brand whose advertising history is rooted in making work that celebrates inclusivity. I'm thinking as far back as "Boys on a Bench" ad in the late 60s, and, of course "Hilltop" in the 70s. [Ed. Note: This is the "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" ad that gained renewed fame in the series finale of Mad Men.] There's an authenticity to working in a longstanding tradition, as opposed to jumping on a cultural bandwagon just because "it sells."
This year's spot, airing during the national anthem, comes just after the Colin Kaepernick campaign. What do you want it to accomplish?
There are much more important people who make these decisions. I'm just the poet! But I do love our placement this year. It's a nice moment for the country to come together. It's the quiet before the storm of outrageous ads. It's a beginning.
Also, I think it's great that Coca-Cola donated $1 million to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, so anyone who comes to Atlanta to watch the game can get in for free.
How many Cokes did you drink while making this ad?
I have a ritual. On every Coke shoot, I wait for a moment towards the end when the work feels like it's really coming together, and then I drink a single Coca-Cola out of a frosted glass bottle. It's a mystical tradition at this point, and I'm superstitious.