As readers of this blog — thanks to all six of you, by the way — you know that I usually try to find some meaning in the seemingly meaningless stuff I write about.
Well, it doesn’t get much more meaningless than “Surge: Fully loaded citrus drink,” except that Surge was a triumph of viral marketing, before viral marketing even really existed, and proved that humans are total suckers.
As you’ll see in this ad, Surge is the only soft drink ever created and specifically marketed to one person, that person being Merritt Schenk. If you don’t know Merritt Schenk, don’t worry about it. You know someone exactly like him, who most likely has had a run-in or two with the police and loves Pabst Blue Ribbon.
As all failures do, Surge (made by the Coca-Cola company) originated in Norway, where it was called “Urge,” giving it a vaguely sexual connotation that Norwegians loved. Surge enjoyed a nice run from 1996-2001, when Coca-Cola stopped its production in every country that matters (the U.S., Denmark and Sweden).
Now, believe it or not, one can of Surge is worth at least $27.
So that’s all well and good, proving that nostalgia, no matter how meaningless, has real value to people.*
*I have to wonder, though, does the person who wins that auction plan on drinking the can of Surge, or do they actually view this an some kind of an investment? Is the value of an unopened can of Surge from 1998 expected to rise?
But I think the most significant thing about Surge is the way it was marketed. The commercials made it seem like drinking Surge would turn you into some kind of urban warrior. It specifically targeted pre-teen and teenage boys,* on the assumption that they daydream about tearing the crap out of things for no real reason, which is exactly right.
*Although the ads depict teenagers, everybody who’s ever sold anything knows that you sell things to pre-teens by using teens, and you sell things to teens by using adults. The magazine, “17,” for example, is really for 13-year-old girls. No 17 year olds read 17. They read “21,” which is actually called, “Cosmopolitan.”
The genius of it was that, especially when you’re dealing with adolescents, the product doesn’t have to actually do what it suggests it will do. It can thrive on urban legend alone, because teenage boys want the ads to be true, they will set about proving them to be true. Scientists have studied this same effect by watching the behavior of two groups of young adults, one given actual alcohol, and one given what they only think is alcohol. Even the ones drinking the bad-tasting water will exhibit drunken behavior almost immediately, not because they’re getting drunk, but because they want to believe they are.
So it was with Surge, which wouldn’t do anything that a cappuccino wouldn’t do, of course. But that didn’t stop 14-year-old boys from downing a six pack of it and crashing shopping carts into the light poles at Wal-Mart.
Nobody wanted to hear this at the time, but Surge actually contained less caffeine than Mountain Dew. That nobody ever realized this, despite the information being available on the back of the cans themselves is one of the great triumphs in marketing history, and also completely terrifying. If the power of suggestion is that strong, and humans are that capable of being that disinterested in the truth, then there would seem to be no limits on what we could be easily duped into believing.
As it turns out, it wasn’t the Surge that was dangerous, it was the people drinking it.