Back before Arabs had a Spring, the great war of the 90s was the war over branded public space. Nobody remembers it now, but Mike Cameron was the self-immolating Tunisian fruit seller of his day. As he left for school on the morning of 18th March, 1998, he couldn't have known that by nightfall his name would be beamed round the world as The Boy Who Wore A Pepsi T-Shirt To Coke Day.
Mike was 18 when his school, Greenbriar High in Evans, Georgia, was doing what a lot of schools were doing at that time: climbing into the sack with large corporations in exchange for trifling funds. Coke HQ had come up with a competition: Coke In Education Day. For one fun day, the curriculum would be hijacked. In chemistry, they would study the molecular composition of Coke. In business studies, they would analyse the marketing plans of Coke. They'd take some Coke to Coke with their Coke on the Coke, then, to cap this bantu education off, someone from Coke HQ would come round and watch them take a photo of themselves dressed in red and white, spelling out the word "Coke" with their bodies: human meat in service of cola.
The winning school in the county would get $500. The winning school in the country would get $10,000, so Greenbriar were going all-out. Until, that is, Mike went off-script. An hour after he wore a Pepsi shirt in the photo, he was in the principal's office being suspended. Twenty-four hours later, he was appearing on national news link-ups, his curious case lighting up the phone lines on talk radio.
Fourteen years on, gays can marry, you can both ask and tell, there's a black Prez and, you would've thought, enough social progress under the bridge that you could go out and do something as societally destructive as brand-mix to your heart's content. Yet, here we are again. According to Lord Coe, if you try to enter the Olympic Park wearing a Burger King T-shirt, Ronald McDonald will slash you ear-to-ear with a cutthroat razor. And if you think you can wear a Pepsi T-shirt within the two weeks of Coke Days we've just spent eight years planning for, well brother, think again.
Unlike Muhammad Al Bouazizi, Mike Cameron did not die from the injuries he sustained during his one-day suspension. He lives. He lives in Georgia, and he's just graduated from his second stint at college. He talks, too. So, I called him up and he talked to us about branding now, London 2012, fleeting instant fame as a metaphor, and what it was like to be the human pixel who wouldn't.
VICE: Hi Mike. How did you feel on the morning you went out to make some history?
Mike: Pretty good. I remember I had multiple shirts in my wardrobe. I had a Pepsi one, I had a Coke one, a 7UP one and a couple of other ones. I just liked them. It was my thing. I really wasn't trying to be rebellious or a troublemaker when I chose the Pepsi one. I mean, I wholeheartedly believe in free speech, but I wasn't like "Down with Coke!"
What actually happened when you and your school went out onto the field to spell out "Coke" with your bodies?
Well, there was a bit the press reports always seemed to get wrong. There was actually another kid who was wearing a Pepsi shirt and removed his coat to reveal it. I didn't have to remove my coat. I was wearing it in plain view – everybody saw it – so there was plenty of opportunity to say something to me privately. A Coke representative actually saw my shirt, punched me on the shoulder and was like, "Ah, ha! Another one."
So, the Coke people were OK about it?
Yeah. Then, it was during seventh period, the vice-principal came and got me. During lunch I'd switched from my Pepsi to my Coke shirt, so he looked a bit confused when he saw me.
Then you were dragged in front of the headmistress?
She was that pissed off that she couldn't look me in the eye. She told me the school could've lost ten grand because of what I'd done. I think my nonchalant attitude pissed her off even more.
Were you upset? Did the injustice of it rankle?
Not at the time. I got a free day off school, and I got to go to work early and make some money. So, I wasn't too upset. But when I told my mom she went to her lawyer and filed a lawsuit for freedom of speech.
How did the national media get onto it?
Well, that day, I went to work at my job at a small house-planning firm. There was a guy called Austin Rhodes on the radio, who was a bit like Rush Limbaugh, but maybe not as political. They were talking about me. Someone said I should give 'em a call, so I did. Then they asked me to go down the station and talk to them some more. So I did. And that's when the news crews started showing up.
How did they hear about this in the first place?
Somebody called the local newspaper claiming to be my mom.
Who wasn't your mom?
You were getting calls from major networks too?
Yeah, a lot. I also received around 50 pieces of mail sent to the school for me, from people around the world who were supporting my case.
It seems like, 14 years after you carried the flag for this, despite all the huff, everything is, if anything, worse. You still can't wear a Pepsi T-shirt to the Olympics.
Well, with things like the Olympics, I understand if Nike, McDonalds and Coke want to get their brand out there. Honestly, I don't have a big problem with these corporations donating that sort of money to the Olympics, but I don't think they should have any say over what happens after that. It's supposed to be everyone coming together. They shouldn't be able to dictate to people – if people want to go to the Olympics, they shouldn't have to base that decision on whether they also feel like wearing a Pepsi shirt. I fear concentration of power as much as anything. With Google and things like that, it's getting like Taco Bell in Demolition Man.
Did the school ever apologise to you?
Not really. They sort of said they, "Would have handled things differently," but no one ever apologised or spoke to me directly. How has your life turned out since this early setback?
It's been good. Since I was about eight years old, I always wanted to be an architect. I went up to Atlanta, studied to become an architect and started practising in 2005. I got laid off in 2009, when the economy went to crap, and decided to go back to school. I just graduated about four weeks ago with my bachelors of fine arts in photography and printmaking. There's an architect's position at the university that I've applied for, but I dunno… it's had its ups and downs, my life, but nothing too bad.
I'm glad to hear it, Mike. Thanks for talking to me.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
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