Earlier this week, a Utah grocery chain pulled three soda brands from its shelves after a customer, Kate Boyle, tweeted that she was “shocked and horrified” by the name of one of the brands: “Not See Kola.” (Boyle’s account is now private.)
Nazi cola? Oh no, demurs Not See Kola’s distributor: It’s pronounced note-zee, which means “lake distress” in German. Riiiight.
The other brands are “Orthodox Jooce” (made from Concord grape juice), and “Leninade,” which I wrote about in a 2011 post about brands that appropriate the imagery and language of 20th-century Communism. All three brands are distributed by Real Soda in Real Bottles, headquartered in Gardena, California.
It was the second time in two months that a Utah customer had criticized the Not See Kola name on social media. In April, Macy Moon wrote on Facebook that she was “very disappointed to see something so tasteless come from a Utah company.” The company’s response to Moon could hardly be construed as an apology. “We respect and understand that everyone has differing senses of humor,” the company wrote. “Our goal is to provide a wide variety of sodas and flavors that everyone can enjoy.”
In other words: Get over yourself! It’s just a joke!
Real Soda’s owner, David Ginsburg (who is, by the way, Jewish), expressed surprise that anyone could have objected to Not See Kola: The brand name is “satirical,” he told KSL in a follow-up report; any outrage is “an overreaction”; and “None of our stuff promotes Nazism or communism.”
Commenters on KSL.com and on Facebook leapt to Not See Kola’s defense, often in contemptuous terms. “Sounds like the hag [sic] had way to [sic] much time on her hands,” wrote one, referring to Kate Boyle. “I do NOT SEE what the issue is,” wrote another. “HUGE Huge, way over the top OVER REACTION!” wrote a third. “C'mon people life is way to [sic] short for such. Now where can I buy these sodas because this is awesome!” People who complained about the name were “crybabies,” other commenters sneered.
I learned about all this via Jonathon Owen, a blogger and editor who lives in Utah and who tweeted about it on Wednesday.
Attention companies (and everyone else, really): Provocative is not the same thing as satirical. Case in point: this soda. https://t.co/DPoynhvmWd— Jonathon Owen (@ArrantPedantry) June 13, 2018
“Satire uses humor to criticize follies or shortcomings, often to draw attention to a problem,” Jonathon added in a threaded tweet. “Calling your soda Not See does ... none of that.”
“Springtime for Hitler” is satire. (It was also provocative, even shocking, when it was first performed in the original The Producers, which was released in 1967, just 22 years after the end of World War II.) Not only does the number spoof the trappings of the Third Reich – pretzel pasties! goose-stepping chorus boys! – it’s also intended to offend. (And, of course, to fail.) It’s framed as the worst possible musical number in the worst possible play.
Not See Kola is something else. Its creator wants us to see the Nazi imagery and also not see it. We’re supposed to believe it’s just a joke, right down to the winking “translation.” If you’re offended, it’s certainly not our fault. Don’t be such a pussy. Lighten up!
This marketing tactic, if you can call it that, has an echo of the trendy “service with a shruggie” approach I wrote about last week. It’s a combination of insolence and indifference; a default to whatever. Yeah, we’re pushing the boundaries of taste, but so what? The only people who would get upset are humorless prigs. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum touched on this unsettling new definition of jokes and humor in a January 2017 essay, “How Jokes Won the Election”:
Growing up a Jewish kid in the nineteen-seventies, in a house full of Holocaust books, giggling at Mel Brooks’s “The Producers,” I had the impression that jokes, like Woody Guthrie’s guitar, were a machine that killed fascists. Comedy might be cruel or stupid, yet, in aggregate, it was the rebel’s stance. Nazis were humorless. The fact that it was mostly men who got to tell the jokes didn’t bother me. Jokes were a superior way to tell the truth—that meant freedom for everyone.
But by 2016 the wheel had spun hard the other way: now it was the neo-fascist strongman who held the microphone and an army of anonymous dirty-joke dispensers who helped put him in office. Online, jokes were powerful accelerants for lies—a tweet was the size of a one-liner, a “dank meme” carried farther than any op-ed, and the distinction between a Nazi and someone pretending to be a Nazi for “lulz” had become a blur.
If Not See Kola isn’t quite “pretending to be a Nazi for ‘lulz’,” it’s lulz-adjacent. It’s edgy, defenders will say. It’s a pun. Oh, and the eagle emblem isn’t really the Nazi eagle: do some research, bitch.*
It’s a joke, they tell us. Like Trump telling photographers in Singapore to make him and Kim Jong-Un “look nice and handsome and thin and perfect.” Just a joke! Like Trump inviting Russia to find Hillary Clinton’s “thirty thousand missing emails.” It was “sarcasm,” he later said – a form of wit based on contempt and ridicule, which may not have been precisely what he intended.
In the end, what bothers me most about Not See Kola isn’t just the name, although it’s a bad name and a bad pun. It’s the way the name panders to people who want it both ways: subversive and innocuous, rebellious and inoffensive. Sure, it’s only a soda. But it’s also a bad-taste reminder of our unfunny, racing-toward-authoritarianism political climate. And that’s hard to swallow.
* I couldn’t help noticing that the two social-media complaints about Not See Kola came from women, and the overwhelming majority of it’s-just-a-joke defenders of the brand have been men. The “humorless feminists” trope is alive and well. Just ask Hillary Clinton.