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Coke’s ‘Real Magic’ not authentic enough for gamers, too authentic for mainstream

System1’s Jon Evans looks at the data around Coca-Cola’s much-maligned esports ad ‘Real Magic’ to understand the parts it got right – and the elements that fell flat.

On paper, Coke’s new esports-themed ad is a strong and timely idea. You don’t need to believe the claims that the US esports audience has overtaken Major League Baseball and the NBA to know that competitive gaming is a huge industry now. And the pandemic added fuel to that fire by taking real-world sports off the table for a while.

So an esports-themed ad from one of the world’s biggest brands feels like a no-brainer. But when a brand inserts itself into a hobby, it needs to tread carefully. And Coke’s ‘Real Magic’ ad has come under fire for being tone-deaf. Its story of battling avatars coming together in peace is accused of patronizing and misunderstanding the gaming community that it’s looking to attract.

The backlash points up how hard it can be for brands to get their forays into pop culture right. As our Orlando Wood points out in his books Lemon and Look Out, advertising is stronger when it looks out and joins in with the culture around it. But when it comes to a subculture such as esports, brands are outsiders and need to earn the community’s trust.

So is it game over for the Coke ad? On our Test Your Ad platform we looked at how ‘Real Magic’ performs in its wider category, and tested it with a custom sample of gamers for good measure.

The overall results don’t look great for the brand. With the general audience, ‘Real Magic’ scores a 1.5-star score, well below the platform’s soft drinks category average of 2.7 stars and suggesting almost no long-term brand-building potential. The ad does much better on spike (a strong score) and, as you’d expect from the world’s best-known brand, its brand fluency is through the roof.

What about our sample of gamers? A vocal minority disliked the ad – it had almost three times the average contempt reaction – but the gamers were warmer overall than the wider sample. They engaged more with the plot and found the overall look more appealing. Whatever mistakes the ad made in its portrayal of gaming, positive emotions were stronger among the gamer sample, suggesting the simple fact of recognition for the hobby outweighs the detail.

However, it’s important to say that the ad wasn’t a success among gamers either – its 2.7-star score is a lot higher than the mass market response, but still only average for a category where Coke has massive advantages. If this was an attempt to make an ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke’ for the metaverse era, it’s fallen flat.

All in all, not a great start for Coke’s latest brand platform. Every brand releases a duff ad sometimes, though, and Coke will live to game again. What’s more interesting is what ‘Real Magic’ teaches us about subcultural appeal and ads. From the backlash, you’d think the main crime of the ad was offending gamers – a few of whom were vocal in their dislike. But actually, it performed better with gamers than with the mainstream.

‘Real Magic’ wasn’t authentic enough in its presentation to please rabid gamers, but its more important flaw is that it was too authentic to please the mass audience, most of whom have zero interest in orcs, Twitch streams or anything else the ad featured. When an ad deals with a subculture, there’s an interest in hearing what that subculture has to say about it. But ultimately, they aren’t the audience who really matter.

Watch the ad below.

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