Ambiguity #3: Cheesy Shasta cola ads from the ’80s!

Join me, won’t you, on a magical journey back to the year … 1983!

Shasta ad #1:

Shasta ad #2:

I’m honestly not sure which of these ads I prefer. They’re both so steeped in the neon-hued pseudo-hip commercial jingle-jangle of my youth that all kinds of long-neglected mental circuits flare up every time I watch either of these thirty-second blasts of earworm nostalgia. I was approximately ten years old when these ads were broadcast regularly. I don’t really recall the images, but that Shasta jingle has lived in one or the other corner of my brain for nearly three decades now. It’s scary, really.

The Shasta jingle contains a bit of garden-variety ambiguity that I think is worth writing about, if only because I’m sort of a nerd for words, and this mild ambiguity is rooted in the lyrics of the Shasta jingle.

The central question is: Does “wanna” mean “want to” or “want a”? Surprisingly, none of my many slang or “regular” dictionaries (not even the big old dusty one from 1962) have an entry for “wanna.” Merriam-Webster online insists that “wanna” is not in the dictionary.

But – aha! The Free Dictionary provides a few basics.

The key point here is that the word is a contraction of either “want a” or “want to,” which I guess we knew already, but it’s nice to have a little confirmation. There’s also a nice “usage” quotation, down the page a bit, from Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, which is a pretty good book.

The meanings of that catchy Shasta jingle and the ads in general change slightly, depending on which of these readings you favor.

The lyrics of the jingle vary very slightly from ad to ad; I’ve posted the ones sung by the saucy female singer:

Don’t gimme that so-so soda
The same old cola
I wanna rock ‘n’ rolla.
I wanna pop (pop, pop)
I wanna Shasta.
I wanna taste pizzazz
All the great taste Shasta has.
I wanna pop (pop, pop)
I wanna Shasta (Shasta).
I wanna thrill
I wanna wow
Taste it all
I want it now.
I wanna pop (pop, pop)
I wanna Shasta.

The thing is that sometimes the context of the lyric requires that we take wanna as “want to,” and sometimes as “want a.” Some of the above “wanna”s make more sense when read as “want to”s, but some leave a bit of room for interpretation. For instance, the singer of the jingle wants to taste pizzazz (inasmuch as the ineffable quality of pizzazz is potable, and inasmuch as it is contained in Shasta’s beverages); reading this line the other way makes no sense.

Actually, no: reading it as “I want a taste pizzazz” does make sense, if we entertain the notion that “taste pizzazz” might be, say, a semi-quantifiable quality of soda pop. Perhaps it is related to umami.

Interestingly, there are no examples of “wanna” in this jingle that must be read as “want a”; every one of the likely candidates may be sensibly read as either “want a” or “want to.” Both “I wanna thrill” and “I wanna wow” may be sensibly read using either form of wanna. If the singer wants a thrill/wow, then she is looking for excitement; if she wants to thrill/wow, then she is looking to instill excitement in someone else, presumably by becoming the highly interesting and delightful person into which Shasta will inevitably transform her.

Most prominently, we have the case of “I wanna pop!” Surely this means that the singer of the song would like to imbibe a sweetened, carbonated beverage, but there is a vanishingly small chance that the singer wants instead to explode! (I grew up on the east coast of the US, so I never called such beverages “pop”; these are sodas.) Or maybe both: maybe the singer desires to instigate the suicidal process of self-explosion by consuming a tremendous amount of fizzy drinks. But I am guessing not, much as that would make for an enjoyable commercial.

Finally, what to do with “I wanna Shasta”? The obvious reading is that the singer of the song wants to drink a Shasta-brand beverage, but if we may slip into adspeak for a moment, it’s possible to consider “Shasta” itself as a verb, which would make “I want to Shasta” not entirely implausible.

Companies turn their products’ names into verbs all the time (“Are you gellin’?”); other times, consumers perform this service for them. The most prominent recent example of the latter tendency is also the most ubiquitous: the use of “google” as a verb, a practice that the company itself has taken legal action to quash.

Here’s an interesting piece from The New York Times about the differing views on “verbing” corporate nouns.

And here’s a nice list, from the archives of The Straight Dope, of “verbed” product names.

“Shasta” is most assuredly not on that list, nor have I ever heard it used as a verb. It’s not even likely that the Shasta company intended to “verb” the name of their product, in these commercials or elsewhere. Still, because these are commercials, and because commercials use language in specialized ways, and because there are precedents for companies turning their products’ names into verbs (despite the notion that it will “weaken the copyright”), it’s not impossible to read this as “I want to Shasta.”

What the hell might the infinitive “to Shasta” mean? By way of answering that rather stupid question, it’s worth considering the nature of the text we’re looking at here: a television advertisement.

All ads have a purpose: to sell you something. Does the mild ambiguity of these silly Shasta ads compromise their ability to sell SELL SELL? I don’t think so. These ads intend to encourage you to buy Shasta’s fine carbonated beverages, yes, but, more than that, they are designed to sell the “experience” of Shasta. Were I a member of ShastaCo’s television-ad focus group in 1983, I might check the following boxes to indicate the kind of experience these ads communicate:

Fashionable (insert snickering here)

Taken together, those checked boxes are probably pretty close to the verb meaning of “Shasta” – or, at least, that’s what the P.R. people would like you to think.

These meanings, and the other messages that are the primary function of these ads are not hindered in any way by the teensy “want a”/“want to” ambiguity. Only nerds like me pay attention to such things. And while this jingle has been rattling around in my head for at least 25 years now, I don’t believe I’ve had a Shasta beverage in at least as long. So I guess these commercials have both succeeded and failed.

Here’s a special bonus for those of you who have read this far along: a third (and distinctly UNambiguous) Shasta ad, this one featuring Barry Williams (Greg from “The Brady Bunch)!:

Update (August 9, 2011):

– I declared above that I didn’t know which of the two Shasta ads I prefer. I have now decided. It’s gotta be the first one, if only for the bizarre presence of that second dude, whose sole purposes are to look “tough” and to say “Pop!” and “Shasta!” as the lyrics demand. As well, the main dude’s skin is hilariously shiny.

– I am pretty certain that it is Casey Kasem himself who does the brief voiceover in the Barry Williams Shasta ad.


Update (11 October 2011):

I have written a new post that clarifies and corrects some of the information in this post. Please check it out!


Posted on August 5, 2011, in Ambiguities and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Growing up in the Midwest, where the drink in question was known as pop, I read it as an old-school Freudian double entendre: I want a/want to pop, I want a Shasta (postcoitally, as it were–or maybe Shasta is the sexual aid here?). The way the singer climbs up the scale on “pop” seals it as a climactic moment for me. (And how sad that I didn’t even have to play the clip to instantly recall that chorus…)

    Nice start on the blog, btw.

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