In 1994 the Coca Cola company had a problem. Their lemon-lime flavoured soft drink, Sprite, was losing market share and was not seen by young people as “cool”. In response, the advertising agency Lowe & Partners/SMS came up with a campaign for Sprite that was pure genius. Appealing to the anti-establishment and sceptical nature of young people, Sprite was marketed under the banner:

“Image is nothing. Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst.”

The slogan proved so successful that it was retained in a series of “anti-ads” for more than 20 years. Many of the ads featured high-profile NBA players, beginning with Grant Hill, then Kobe Bryant and finally LeBron James.

Why was this campaign so effective? I believe that, in part, it was because the intentional irony captured the imaginations and appealed to the sense of humour of the target audience. Young people know that image is NOT nothing, and they know that the advertising industry is driven by the promotion of images. When young people hear “Image is nothing”, I believe many of them immediately respond by saying to themselves, “That’s not right. Image is everything”. However, in this case, I think the genius of the slogan is that it suggests a resolution: there is something that is more important than image, and that is thirst. Even image-conscious young people had to admit that, if you are really thirsty, thirst matters more than image. You might even drink Sprite!

For many years now, I have been ‘borrowing’ this piece of advertising genius and giving it a twist of my own, as I suggest to young people: Image is nothing. Character is everything.

It works, for the same reason. Young people are especially susceptible to peer pressure which, at its heart, is usually the pressure to adopt or conform a particular image. Wear these clothes. Style your hair like this. Use this language.

Most of the time, this type of peer pressure is relatively harmless. However, when it crosses over into the realm of morals, peer pressure and image-consciousness may become problematic. When young people are being told that bad language is acceptable, that honesty is contextual, or that it’s okay for boys to demean women and girls, then I suggest that “going along with the crowd” just to maintain some street-cred is wrong. Character matters more.

I try, whenever the opportunity presents itself, to educate young people about character and virtues. I explain to them that character is the person you are when nobody is looking. Character is the person you really are, rather than the person you might like to hope that people think you are. And, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Character is destiny”. Or, as Waldo Emerson elaborated, “Sow a thought and you reap an action; sow an act and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

What ultimately becomes our character develops over time, especially during the formative years of adolescence and young adulthood. It is shaped by thousands of decisions we make, big decisions and seemingly insignificant ones, which together reinforce the type of person we are becoming. Eventually, most of us become “set in our ways” and our decision-making, including moral decisions, becomes almost automatic.

All of us, especially during our formative adolescent years, need role models who can show us how to live a morally praiseworthy, “good” life. And sometimes, we all need good friends (or parents, or teachers) who will remind us that “Image is nothing: character is everything”.

Nigel Grant
Nigel Grant

Nigel is the primary consultant at Character Matters