Pepsi: For Those Who Think Young

December 1, 2006

Early on, when Pepsi was considered downstairs to Coke's upstairs, its advertising aimed to make Pepsi classy, to propel it out of the kitchen and into the living room. In the 1950's "Say Pepsi Please" and "Be sociable, look smart'' campaigns, debonair men in tuxedos toasted women in cocktail dresses with Pepsi in champagne coolers.

After BBDO won the account in 1960, Pepsi began to target young people with their own attitudes, styles and soft drink who weren't looking to be effete but to "be alive." In 1965, "You're in the Pepsi Generation" replaced cocktail attire with surfing gear and other high-energy play clothes. In 1975, feisty Pepsi became downright aggressive. The Pepsi Challenge-blind in-store taste tests against the Real Thing- produced startling results. However, by 1984, Pepsi concluded that the challenge had strayed too far from the product's ad mission: ``to touch, tickle, dazzle and delight.'' It sold a product more than a promise-a promise of fun and youth and joy and laughter and good times, said Phil Dusenberry, formerly chairman of BBDO.

Built on the assumption that one's soda is indicative of his style, new ads focused more on the people drinking it than on any product attributes like taste or calories. And they focused on Pepsi's cheeky personality to suggest that Coke was inferior and Pepsi was the choice of the new generation.

In a 1985 spot, for example, some time in the future, an archeology professor guides his class through an old ruin that was once a typical suburban home. The students drink Pepsi and marvel over their finds as he describes a baseball as: "A spherical object they used to hurl at each other with great velocity as others looked on," and a guitar as a device that "produced excruciatingly loud noises to which they would gyrate in pain.'' But when a student scrapes the dirt and corrosion off an old Coke bottle-the sage is stumped.

Rather than make the product hero, as Coke ads did, Pepsi made the product-user the hero. Leaving to Coca Cola the sentimental terrain of nostalgia, Pepsi turned to humor to make friends, open minds and close sales. "Being hard, loud, sharp or pushy was simply not Pepsi's way," said Dusenberry. (Neither was stinting on production. Many commercials cost so much an oft heard quip was that Pepsi gave BBDO an unlimited budget which somehow the agency managed to exceed.)

Music was a common element in these emotional ads that interwove the warm with the wry, said former creative director Ted Sann. So were hot stars. The ice-cold cola war was really a "Star War" with celebrities as its missiles. Coke enlisted Michael Jordan, New Kids on the Block, Jerry Hall,  Paula Abdul and Elton John, while Pepsi went with Michael Jackson, M.C. Hammer, Lionel Richie, Madonna, Joe Montana, Michael J. Fox, Billy Crystal and VP candidate Geraldine Ferraro.

Pepsi didn't become a Super Bowl fixture until 1989. Diet Coke was the official soft drink of XXIII and sponsor of the halftime show, but Pepsi took the field with charm. In one spot, while a despondent researcher types a lab report about her "wonderful companions" exhibiting "poor computer skills, no understanding of tools and their uses and a lack of organization as well as no decision making abilities," her chimps demonstrate those "missing" skills. They assemble to unlock their cage, snitch coins for the soda machine, hoist atop each other to reach it and give her a Diet Pepsi to cheer her up. In another in-game spot - the first American ad shot in Russia - a father trying to read a newspaper complains in Russian (with subtitles) to his son about his high decibel music, weird clothes, abnormal friends and wacky lifestyle. While the camera pans street scenes of skateboarders, hip kids break-dancing and a kiosk selling Pepsi, a voice-over notes that lots of refreshing changes have taken place since Pepsi came to the USSR. In a third spot, a Michael J. Fox robot makes off with his girlfriend and Diet Pepsi as the real, outfoxed Michael, tumbles down a garbage chute.

Pepsi continued to pour on the charm at Super Bowl XXIV. "Wonder Years" star Fred Savage, composing a love letter, is released from writer's block when he likens his girlfriend to an effervescent Pepsi. "Growing Pains" star Kirk Cameron forks over some priceless coins he's cataloguing at a museum when a pretty girl asks for change for the Pepsi machine. "Tastes like a million," she says sipping her Pepsi when he realizes his mistake. "Almost," he whispers. And taking a soda break at the opera, Michael J. Fox gets locked out of the theater, sneaks back in through a side door, and finds himself onstage amid a triumphal chorus-drinking his Pepsi.

The Gulf War prompted both Coke and Pepsi to change their minds about their ads at the 11th hour. For Super Bowl XXV, Diet Coke scrapped funny spots with Leslie Nielsen as a bumbling police detective and a "Crack the Code" sweepstakes to instead scroll a somber message "to recognize what is truly important: our men and women serving in the Persian Gulf" and announce a $1 million donation to the U.S.O. Viewers regarded Coke's patriotic replacement ads as party-pooping, patronizing, and holier than thou. Ad Age chided it: "Coke made the wrong move, baby."

Diet Pepsi, it seemed, made the right move. It ran "You got the right one, baby" with a tuxedo clad Ray Charles and the Raylettes in their slinky lame outfits as back-up. The gag started when someone switched the blind singer's beloved Diet Pepsi for a Diet Coke but Charles caught on because of the taste. One spot showed just how well their two syllable "uh-huh" grunt caught on with listeners by showing an African tribe, throngs of cheering Asians, worshipping Eastern Buddhists, and Geishas belting it out. In another commercial, Jerry Lewis, Charo, Vic Damone,
Tiny Tim, a dog, an accordion player and Bo Jackson audition singing the Uh-Huh" jingle. George Bush Sr. used the phrase in a famous debate against Michael Dukakis and it adorned T-shirts, hats, and boxer shorts. "Uh-Huh" shrunk a 40 point gap with Diet Coke to four points, drove volume increases twice as large as the overall category, increased volume share across all channels and created unprecedented awareness.

Alas, the blip was short-lived. By 1992 whatever soda was on sale was the one that sold. So Pepsi tried new tricks. Two boys are wowed but it's the new Pepsi can, not Cindy Crawford, who has them gasping. "An irresistible force" causes a farmer to plow his truck through a Pepsi billboard onto a field which became Woodstock. And "Gotta Have It," designed to extend the age of the targeted demographic, enlisted such celebrities as Shannen Doherty, Bo Jackson, Regis Philbin and Yogi Berra.

"New" figured prominently in Super Bowl 1993 - this time for a new Pepsi product: Crystal. The spots, directed by Bob Dylan's son Jesse, and orchestrated to Van Halen's "Right Now" seem to be slow-paced cooking and plant-care shows before revealing that they're really for the transparent soda. An oft repeated Pepsi strategy was to belittle Coke's customers as square and feeble. In one spot, Pepsi is mistakenly delivered to a retirement community that usually gets Coke. Suddenly the old folks boogie and hang. Meanwhile, members of the frat house that received the Coke, languidly play bingo. In 1994, chimp A, who swigged Coke, had improved motor skills; chimp B, who drank Pepsi, broke out of the scientific study to party on the beach.

Pepsi's ultimate drinker was the Coke delivery man. In a 1995 spot, lonely Coke and Pepsi truck drivers sit together at a diner one snowy night during holiday season. In a hatchet-burying gesture they swap drinks. A brawl ensues when the Coke driver won't relinquish his Pepsi. The next year, after stocking Coke on convenience store shelves, the paunchy delivery man surreptitiously tries to sneak a Pepsi (as Hank Williams ‘Your Cheatin' Heart" plays) but he's caught on an in-store security camera.

Pepsi had another rival, generics, to denigrate. In a "Field of Dreams" takeoff, a dead dad reunites with his grown son at a cornfield/baseball diamond, but when his offspring proffers a can of Fred's choice cola, dad mutters incredulously, "I came back for this?" and dissolves as his son feebly tries to explain that he saved nine cents on it.

Pepsi ruled the next several Super Bowls with various offbeat characters. Nutty professor Michael Richards isolates Cindy Crawford in a Pepsi deprivation tank as research to determine the ultimate beverage. She emerges as Rodney Dangerfield. Pepsi drinkers in the tundra meet in an emergency room with their tongues frozen onto soda cans. A Pepsi-craving lad sucks so hard he's pulled into the Pepsi bottle. "Summer of Love" celebrated Woodstock's 25th anniversary, but now the concert-goers are aging yuppies whose aerobics, BMWs, cell phones, condos and memory loss are fit to spoof.

By 1997, the word "choice" had become too connected to the heated abortion debate so Pepsi traded it for "Generation Next." In 1998 (XXXII) a Gen X couple with nose rings spout Pepsi from where they'd been pierced, and an insect-like Mick Jagger struts around Pepsi's new blue can singing the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar." A skydiver performs aerial stunts while an animatronic goose mimics his daredevil maneuvers - and catches a soda stream in its beak.

After running only one ad in XXXIII (1999), Pepsi was back big time in 2000 to "nationalize" Mountain Dew and "give it real visibility," said Dawn Hudson, SVP-marketing at Pepsi. In one spot, a Gen X mountain biker outran a speeding cheetah that had nabbed his Mountain Dew to wrest the  drink back. In another, a group of Gen Xers parodied Queen's rock anthem "Bohemian Rhapsody."

For the 2001 game Pepsi reprised a 1992 spot with Cindy Crawford. Now she pulls her hot-rod convertible up to a soda machine at a dusty desert gas station. As she knocks back a Diet Pepsi, two kids watch, jaws agape. They are her own toddlers. But it was Bob Dole's parody of his Viagra spot that refreshed effervescently. Romping on the beach in a cardigan sweater with a golden retriever (clichéd symbols of vitality) Dole eagerly talks "about a product that put real joy back into my life. It helps me feel youthful, vigorous and, most importantly, vital again.... " His "faithful little blue friend," turns out to be Pepsi.

In one spot in the 2004 game, sixteen real life teens, including 14-year-old Annie Leith from Staten Island, New York, are busted by the music industry for illegal music file sharing. But they're able to keep doing it, legally, thanks to Pepsi and iTunes and their promotion to give away 100 million free songs. In another Pepsi-spot, in Seattle in 1953, eleven-year-old Jimi Hendrix chooses Pepsi over Coke -and then has a revelation which inspires him to take up guitar over the accordion.

In the 2005 game Pepsi abandoned the humorous "rug pull" at the commercial's end, to sell nostalgia and glamour. Its 90-second musical extravaganza showed Britney Spears traveling through time to reprise the look and jingles of Pepsi ads. Pepsi extended the commercial with massive PR including a pre-game invitation to vote online for the era consumers most wanted to see.

For years, Pepsi anchored its annual marketing plan around the Super Bowl and previewed its Super Bowl ads at the bottler's convention the week before. More often than not its ads have been winners. More often than not, they were risky. "To play it safe would have been the greatest risk of all," said Pepsi marketing chief Brian Swette. In truth, to not have been there would have been riskier. Despite the nastiness of the battle, the noise generated business. When Pepsi and Coke went at each other hammer and tongs, both increased in market share.

Super Plays/Take-Away
Soda commercials have little to say but a lot to communicate emotionally. Pepsi positioned itself as youthful and whimsical and Coke as wholesome and all-American. Pepsi lapped up the big game because its celebratory tone blended with its product and advertising tone. The soda giant constantly evaluated what was working and when it wore out and took big risks financially. It also matched the top stars with this top venue. It rode the Super Bowl from a distant second lower class beverage to be a real challenger to Coke.


"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.