Coca-Cola Catholicism & moral media wars


Politicians and preachers (pardon the redundancy) could benefit from an occasional retail reality check. Shop owners and ad salesmen always consider whether or not something will sell. If the elected and anointed would do the same, it would save their followers so much grief and expense.

Several decades ago, my fellow ad professionals salivated over the soon-to-come day of risk-free marketing. As soon as research techniques became accurate enough, one could custom-create consumables based upon what the public told you it collectively wanted.

Some guys were dumb enough to go a step further and actually try to manufacture "greenhouse products" based upon consumer research. Would you buy shoes with tiny flashlights attached for walking in the dark?

In 1985, mighty Coca-Cola killed what is now called Coke Classic and replaced it with New Coke. Maybe Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election the previous year made businessmen feel that the public was ready to sink to new levels of mindless compliance with mass media mandates.

Coke's marketing wizards basically removed vanilla from their formula and added lots more sugar. "Tastes just like Pepsi," was the underwhelming consumer response. Coke's carbonated geniuses had re-made the most successful consumer product outside of cigarettes largely because, in blind taste tests, people would usually say they liked Pepsi best. Coke never asked why. I could have saved them a few hundred million.

In a shopping center taste test, Pepsi, with more potential to sugar-shock the U.S. consumer's already overtaxed palate, will always win. That didn't address die-hard Coke freaks who loved the less-sweet beverage just as it was. The organization men forgot the first rule of staying in business: know thy customer.

Which brings me to the Catholic Church. Over the past several weeks, outraged Catholic leaders have been pressuring TV advertisers to boycott the ABC drama "Nothing Sacred."

About two dozen sponsors have pulled out so far. Big sponsors like Chrysler and Isuzu are always gutless. Even a single complaint from a potential buyer sends at least one marketing executive home for a change of underthings. (Too bad the same responsiveness doesn't hold after the sale. When a customer gets deep-fried or killed in one of those 3,000-pound exploding gas cans, corporate lawyers stonewall, call you crazy and try to further wreck your life.)

Nothing Sacred dares to portray priests and nuns who actually have human feelings, who doubt their decisions and question their own advice. Worst of all, the main character, Father Ray, played by handsome young actor Kevin Sullivan, is revealed as (gasp!) not a virgin.

The first episode shows him torn between Mother Church and an old flame from before he took the Big Oath. Both Fr. Ray and avuncular Fr. Leo (Brad Sullivan, who played the coach in "I'll Fly Away"), speak the unspeakable to women facing unwanted pregnancy: "I can't tell you what to do. I can only tell you what the church teaches." Both have actually said "it's her choice" right on TV in front of God and everybody.

Even Hilary Clinton avoided the C-Word last week, merely mentioning "reproductive health care" but nonetheless raising cheers among Argentine women. Both Hilary and Father Ray, in different ways on the same day, had internationally raised the issue of free will, an acceptable subject of discussion back when I was a cherubic altar boy. The church, as always, missed a major marketing opportunity to engage in relevant moral discussions with former, present and future followers.

Far from forbidding people to watch Nothing Sacred, the old men in funny hats should encourage it. It could become one hell of a recruiting tool. The cast is so attractive it could stimulate thousands of young people to consider the cloister or the convent. The show portrays conflict, temptation and forgiveness in a church filled with caring clerics with whom real people can identify.

Without that connection, people look elsewhere to explain the unexplainable. Look at all the substitute religions siphoning off the faithful from the established dinosaurs. Star Trek and Scientology present but two examples.

Recovering Catholics are not shocked as the church once again misses the boat just as Noah closes the hatch.

DOING IT RIGHT: A tip of the tiara to Newark, NJ, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick for establishing a diocesan policy of boycotting sweatshop-made products, including (can you say Nike?) athletic wear. Now, there's a preacher who knows how to sell by making church activity relevant to people's lives, sort of a stateside version of liberation theology (a nickname for priest-led revolution).

For most of this century, the church in Mexico made itself irrelevant to the lives of its people by staying out of politics. The Zapatista revolution in Chiapas state has taken place largely outside Catholic officialdom. No institution is more in need of revolutionaries. Perhaps sweatshop activism in New Jersey can kick start liberation theology north of Belize and Guatemala.

MEDIA ALERT: California PBS affiliates this week air a show called "Fear & Favor in the Newsroom." It has not been scheduled in Nevada and needs public pressure to get it on. My favorite segment involves censoring video of dead women and children during the Gulf War in order to maintain the fiction that our smart weapons really worked only on Saddam's bad guys.

Let PBS program directors know you want to see it. E-mail for northern Nevada or for southern Nevada and Tucson. You may call them, respectively, at (702) 784-4555 or (520) 299-1866. You can preview audio and video of the program at

More soon.

Be well. Raise hell.


© Andrew Barbano
Andrew Barbano, a Reno-based syndicated columnist and 29-year Nevadan, is editor of U-News.
Barbwire by Barbano has appeared in the Sparks Tribune since 1988 and parts of this column were originally published 10/19/97.

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