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Old whines in new bottles - PR Pope Francis’ message no different to Benedict’s

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Pope Francis
Pope Francis 

April 23, 1985 will live forever in marketing infamy. That was the day the Coca-Cola Company held a press conference at Lincoln Center in Manhattan to introduce New Coke, the “fresher, rounder, bolder,” new formula of good old Coca-Cola.

The market had forced their hand. Coca-Cola wasn’t selling like it used to. In 1945 the market share for Coke was 60 percent. By 1983, it had declined to under 24 percent. Worse, it’s biggest rival in the cola wars, Pepsi, had begun to outsell it in the supermarkets.

There were other factors involved. Baby boomers were getting leery of too much sugar in their diets, and they were generally becoming more weight conscious. Younger people preferred the sweeter taste of Pepsi, tests showed.

The omens were not good. Something had to be done. They decided to tamper with the taste.

Consumer tests said that 80 percent of the American public learned of the slight change to the classic formula within days. But what happened next set a new benchmark in angry consumer backlash.

The company received 400,000 calls and letters in the weeks that followed. New Coke outraged them.

Interestingly, many of the protestors were southerners, quite a few of whom considered the famous soft drink a fundamental part of their regional identity. They even viewed Coca-Cola’s decision to change the formula through the prism of the Civil War, as yet another surrender to the damned Yankees.

This was pretty heavy stuff for a simple soft drink.

I bring this up because the world has just been introduced to a New Pope. Like New Coke, the New Pope Francis I holds exactly the same opinions and articles of faith that the old pope did.

But he’s different. There’s a bit of a different look and flavor to him.

What’s also different is that it’s very unlikely the Vatican will receive 400,000 angry calls and letters to demand the old Pope Benedict be restored to the throne of Peter.

Very few people are hankering for a more restrictive church. Many people think the church is too restrictive now.

It hasn’t been discussed in print much yet, but it’s becoming pretty clear that the Vatican is getting the message. The world, and more particularly the world’s Catholics, have changed.

Classic Catholicism isn’t resonating with the young people the way it used to. That’s why the decision was apparently taken to improve the flavor without radically altering the content.

The Republican Party is pursuing the same repackaging approach right now.  RNC chairman Reince Priebus and his team recently reached out to more than 50,000 Americans to find out why they lost the last election.

Now Priebus apparently believes that enacting the 219 recommendations made in the commissioned report -- from passing comprehensive immigration reform to spending $10 million on a marketing campaign aimed at women, minorities and gay Americans -- will restore the party’s popular standing.

But I have a feeling their efforts will be about as successful as New Coke. It’s because they don’t want to hear what the nation and the world is actually calling for -- principled and inclusive change.

Instead the GOP and the Vatican still believe it’s not what they say. It’s how they say it.  It’s not them, it’s you who needs to change.

Watching ABC’s This Week on Sunday, I did an involuntary spit when host George Stephanopoulos asked guest Cardinal Timothy Dolan how he would respond to Catholic gays and lesbians who want to get married in the Catholic Church.

“Well, the first thing I’d say to them is, I love you, too,” said Dolan. “And God loves you. And we want your happiness.

“But -- you’re entitled to friendship. God has told us that the way to happiness, that -- especially when it comes to sexual love -- that is intended only for a man and woman in marriage, where children can come about naturally. We gotta be -- we gotta do better to see that our defense of marriage is not reduced to an attack on gay people. And I admit, we haven’t been too good at that.”

Dolan and the church have “not been too good at that” because the attempt to order the existences of others to comport with your personal own beliefs, without offering a compelling legal argument, is an attack.

All the public relations in the world won’t change that. Dolan may love you, but he wants you to love only who he says.

I’m amazed the church and the GOP believe a softer tone will shift what they’re selling. I’m amazed we suddenly have a PR pope who looks different but is actually the same.

We have a political party who think that it’s not them, it’s you who has to change. And we have an archbishop who not only excludes gay Irish people from the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade, and also from marriage, but who forbids them from ever physically expressing their love with another consenting adult, ever.

If you’re white, heterosexual and conservative you will have God’s blessing. If you’re not you can just wait in line for a visa, you can accept that others get to control your reproductive choices, and if you’re gay you better get comfortable just holding hands and living and dying legal strangers.

Because it’s not the church or the GOP who have to change. It’s you.

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