American troops are drinking sodas in our living rooms. They are somewhere in the Persian Gulf war zone, though precisely where is not clear. But precisely what they are drinking is as clear as the name written across the soda cans.
Think of this as The Bombing Pause That Refreshes. The troops are watching the Super Bowl on TV while a TV camera shows them drinking the sodas. The scene is shown at halftime of the ballgame, but it will be repeated on TV news shows for the rest of the week.
A nation glued to television sets is supposed to make subconscious links: Here are our kids, and here is their soda. If it's good enough for our kids, then it's good enough for us. And if that soda company's big-hearted and patriotic enough to send its product to our kids, then the least we can do back home is buy the stuff. It's practically part of the war effort.
If you buy this line of thinking, then the soda company would also like to interest you in some stock in the Hanover Street bridge.
The fighting broke out in the Persian Gulf 18 days ago, but the fighting for product placement, for warm and fuzzy public relations, started within days of American troop mobilization in the gulf.
Barely a month after Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, Advertising Age magazine ran a story headlined "Middle East Crisis: Public Relations Offensive Hits Persian Gulf,"which opened this way:
"Marketers are aiming their public relations guns toward the Middle East."
First there was the Quaker Oats Co., shipping 20,000 cases of Gatorade to troops stationed in Saudi Arabia. That was back in the blistering heat of mid-August. U.S. health officials had convulsions when they heard this, saying that American soldiers should be drinking only water to avoid dehydration.
"When the publicity drums started rolling for Quaker," Advertising Age reported, "others began jumping on the bandwagon . . . Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T; . . ."
Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at the Johns Hopkins University, has been charting the results. From where he sits, it looks like a mad commercial -- to cash in on a nation's support of its fighting troops.
"This is the first time in history," Miller was saying Friday, "where we're seeing product placement for a war. We've seen tie-ins before. 'Lucky Strike green goes to war' during World War II, things like that.
"But this is a war that's very consciously being turned into commercials for all sorts of goods, where we have marketing efforts to find ways to insert products into news footage. I mean, Coca-Cola actually hired a free-lance photographic company to take pictures of whatever troops were handling their product, and then sent photo sheets to the news weeklies.
"All kinds of things are being sent over as a deliberate way to associate the product with the stirring image of our boys getting ready to fight a just fight. Of course they were represented as corporate volunteerism because they're supplying the stuff free. But you'd have to be pretty naive to think that's the only thing at work here."
The idea is to make a patriotic connection for products. While nobody wants to rob these companies of whatever idealistic instincts were involved, some see the fine hand of commercialism overextending itself.
Is this too cynical an outlook? Why not just accept the generosity of these companies and leave it at that?
Miller thinks there's cynicism here, but not his own.
"Not cynicism on my part," he said. "It would be cynical of me if these products weren't made public so carefully. I mean, if they just sent the stuff over and the troops enjoyed the products, that would be that.
"But they've taken pains to let consumers see them very clearly. That makes it clear that it's not the critic being cynical, it's the companies."
It's tough to remember anything of this nature happening during Vietnam. Partly, advertisers didn't want product identification with a war half the country found appalling. Partly, too, it would have been tougher displaying products in a jungle setting than in a desert atmosphere.
"The only product appearance I can remember from Vietnam," Miller recalled, "was that notorious moment when a kid used a Zippo lighter to set fire to a peasant's hut. It was a grotesque moment.
"In this war, though, it's not just commercial products. The war's become a kind of relentless commercial for the defense contractors, a kind of promotional film for them. And they needed the publicity, after all those years of cost overruns. Even Sen. Sam Nunn explicitly said the defense contractors have turned it around and we should salute them."
And that's the whole point. It's not just a fight to liberate Kuwait anymore. It's a battle for the hearts and minds of consumers, a war of marketing strategies, the little missiles to our hearts between the air attacks.
The message is: Be a patriot and love our product. It's the least you can do for the war effort.