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Winter Olympics TV ads exploit the movie in our head — the one in which we star

“Diet Coke Ginger Lime,” says the red-headed guy on the low-rent couch, taking a swig on his beverage of choice as he stares into a camera that feels not unlike the one in your cracked smartphone. “Because I support all things ginger.”

“What, what?” the man asks, addressing an unseen skeptic perchance questioning the wisdom of choosing his artificially sweetened carbonated beverage by the color of his hair. “That was like a super-solemn answer.”

No doubt, dude. No doubt. The ginger’s bosses know we just don’t buy stuff anymore unless it conveniently fits into the movie we all now have in our heads, the one written by, directed and starring our very important selves.

If you watched the ads for the Super Bowl, and especially during the Winter Olympics airing on NBC, you’ll have witnessed how quickly and completely Madison Avenue has surrendered to this self-actualizing reality. Emphasizing the actual attributes of that which is being advertised now is a rare act. It’s no longer just a matter of positioning a product in the subject’s life as part of a classic promotional mix. The product no longer matters. Only the subject’s aspirations matter. Or, if you are watching an ad produced by Procter & Gamble, the aspirations of the subject’s mom, who may also be the subject herself.

Ergo, Diet Coke is no longer the real thing (not that it ever was). Actually, it no longer wants to say it is any kind of thing — which is dangerous in these tribal and divided times. It would much prefer to be a cipher for whatever you want it to be, for it can and will play that role if you will only pop the ring-pull and take a sip. The new slogan? “Because I can.”

Aside from the ginger who loves ginger lime, as any self-respecting ginger should, consider the Gillian Jacobs Diet Coke spot (seen during the Super Bowl and beyond) that says, hey, “life is short, if you want to live in a yurt, yurt it up.” And after Diet Coke generously gives us further permission to run a marathon, it tells us that if we’d rather not, then that will be equally fine.

“Just do you,” it says.

Phew. Nice to know Diet Coke is OK with whatever that might mean.

Diet Coke would not want to say what “you” is, actually, although it wouldn’t mind a spot in your hand as you’re doing you. It just can’t say that, for then it would worry that you would worry that you were not doing you, which is what it wants you to be free to do.

Toyota is similarly self-effacing. If you’ve been watching the Olympics,you’ll know it keeps telling you to “Start Your Impossible,” even though that very three-word phrase actually is a contradiction in terms. Except that the word impossible is now a synonym for challenging.

In one eye-poppingly emblematic spot, the skater Ashley Wagner, ice dancing and chasing her dreams under a silvery moon, insists that “the harder we fall, the stronger we rise,” which is way more comforting than true. There is no car in sight in Wagner’s sylvan dreamscape, and the switch to the use of second person from her personal narrative is far from coincidental, even though it ignores that Wagner, like all athletes, actually has to beat back the dreams of others in order to win herself. (And for evidence of that inconvenient truth, I give you the losing ice-dancers’ reaction from the silver medal spot in the holding pen as the gold slipped away.) We’re conveniently forgetting that Olympic reality. Even as you watch the best in the world, you are now constantly being asked to buy your own potential.

Actually, cars can even correct your mistakes. Take the Chevrolet ad, ubiquitous in recent weeks, where “real people” are asked to comment on one of the company’s larger vehicles, only to discover beloved family members inside, apparently secretly flown in by the carmaker to elicit the kind of sincerely emotional reaction that cars never actually elicit. It is, at best, an egregious co-option of the sadness we feel at seeing too little of our loved ones and every time I see it I want to rise up in protest. But it works. I tear up every time. And I wonder where they all are going to dinner. And who is paying.

Advertising creatives — who tend to be smart, amoral when necessary and far more aware of their audience than anyone else — always have things to teach artists.

There’s another problem. A lot of young artists have become very used to being empowered by Diet Coke and its pals to be themselves, and thus their work tends to be about them and their ideas and feelings, with far less apology or mitigation than you would have seen in previous generations.

No problem, you might think, if a young artist and a young audience member are on the same page. But they’re actually not. The moment a playwright disappears into their own navel — and I could name about five shows in that category in Chicago right now — they risk the audience, metaphorically speaking, thinking about the marathon it would like to run itself, Diet Coke in hand. What many artists — and arts organizations — have not yet figured out is how to switch, as does Wagner in that Toyota ad, to the second person at just the right moment. But it is the key to long-term survival. We just have our heads in the sand.

Madison Avenue, which knows how to ensure its own survival, is now aware that it doesn’t matter what Diet Coke feels, but what we feel about Diet Coke. Or to put that another way, we don’t want to watch the movie in someone else’s head, but the one in our own.

Sure, that’s tough when you’re trying to make a living from screening your film for other people, especially if you trained and worked for years to make that movie as excellent as possible. But it’s the reality. Watch the ads at the Olympics tonight.

Cans of the Coca-Cola Co.'s new flavored Diet Coke product in a supermarket in New York on Tuesday, February 13, 2018. The Coca-Cola Co. reports fourth-quarter earnings on Friday before the bell. (Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA/TNS)

Cans of the Coca-Cola Co.’s new flavored Diet Coke product in a supermarket in New York on Tuesday, February 13, 2018. The Coca-Cola Co. reports fourth-quarter earnings on Friday before the bell. (Richard B. Levine/Sipa USA/TNS)

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