This is a picture of the candle light vigil at Virginia held in recognition of and to mourn the deaths of 32 Virginia Tech students massacred by a murderer. If one is however unaware of this context and knows what one is looking at this might also be an advertisement for Coca Cola. If one looks closely, one will see people holding candles in little red cups. These are Coca Cola cups. Visits to media sites as well as Flickr will confirm this. Indeed peppered, throughout pictures of the mourners, one finds coca cola cups.
Perhaps significantly too in responses to pictures of this kind on Flickr one finds no mention of the cups. Rather, repetitiously, “awesome shot,” “thanks for sharing,” “very moving.”
I didn’t notice this myself because I did not watch TV coverage of the event or look for coverage of it online. But after class this last Thursday, a student came up and said, “Hey, I noticed something because of this class.” We are discussing and writing about the consumer culture. When he told me about the coca cola cups, I was outraged at the pure insensitivity and just plain vulgarity displayed by people mourning the deaths of comrades with candles in coca cola cups. I can’t at the moment quite find the words to express my feelings about the inappropriateness of this particular product placement.
I suppose there might be many reasons for this sordid vulgarity. One was in a rush to mourn and perhaps lacking a cup in which to stick one’s candle, one takes a coca cola cup because it is handed to one, as free of charge. Still, had a coca cola cup been handed to me on such an occasion, I would have thrown it to the ground and stomped on it. I wouldn’t in any case have wanted my grief associated with a sweet, sticky substance, that rots teeth and contributes to obesity. Not to mention its association with the predatory capitalism of the Coke corporation.
But this reaction marks me I suppose as pretty old school. I was not born and raised in the consumer culture as it flowered since about 1980. The students I teach seem to find nothing wrong with acting as walking billboards for whatever clothes they are wearing or rock groups they support. And they find nothing wrong, I guess, because acting as a walking billboard serves as an identity marker, as way of asserting one’s allegiance to a particular product and all the other unknown people who also pledge allegiance to this particular product. Who knows but some students carrying those coca cola candles may have felt, albeit unconsciously, soothed by those cups and their associations with that sweet, sticky beverage that has marked so many happy and unhappy occasions.