Essentially two kinds of people existed in the ’80s: Coke drinkers and Pepsi drinkers. And if you loved Michael Jackson, you had good reason to fall into the latter group.
In November 1983, one year after Thriller was released, Jackson (with his brothers) and PepsiCo struck a $5 million partnership that would shatter the record for a celebrity endorsement deal, link the two entities for a decade and set the bar for every integrated marketing campaign that would follow.
Jackson’s managers approached Jay Coleman, founder and CEO of Entertainment Marketing & Communications International, who would eventually broker all three Jackson-Pepsi deals, with the idea of partnering Jackson with a major brand at a firm asking price. Coleman, who had already orchestrated Jovan fragrances’ landmark sponsorship of the Rolling Stones’ Tattoo You tour, first proposed the idea to Coca-Cola.
“They gave it serious consideration yet couldn’t make that leap of faith,” Coleman says. “They saw anything they would do with Michael as a more targeted, ethnic campaign.” Coca-Cola offered a $1 million deal that was rejected and the Jacksons moved on to PepsiCo, where then-CEO Roger Enrico was looking for a big idea to launch his youth-targeted “New generation” campaign for the brand. “The goal was to make Pepsi look young and Coke look old, and Michael Jackson was in fact the choice of that generation — he was already the King of Pop, even though he hadn’t declared it,” Coleman says.
PepsiCo and its ad agency, BBDO, also hesitated at the possible cost, but Coleman’s proposal proved too appealing. “I pitched it as a multifaceted marketing campaign with lots of touch points: big-time advertising, tour sponsorship, logos on the cans, displays in the supermarket and PR-friendly events,” Coleman says. When Jackson suggested using his song “Billie Jean” as the jingle (with the rewritten chorus, “You’re the Pepsi generation/Guzzle down and taste the thrill of the day/And feel the Pepsi way”), Pepsi was sold.
So pervasive was the first campaign, which ran from 1983 to 1984, that the stories surrounding it have become like fables: the infamous accident that set Jackson’s hair on fire and resulted in his rumored first cosmetic surgery, the star’s desire to hide his face behind sunglasses for a “less is more” effect, and so on.
But its impact on the music and advertising industries was equally widespread. “It was definitely game-changing,” says Brian J. Murphy, evp of branded entertainment at TBA Global. “You couldn’t separate the tour from the endorsement from the licensing of the music, and then the integration of the music into the Pepsi fabric. If you pulled any one of those pieces apart, it really took away from what the campaign was all about.”
Jackson’s creative input also was groundbreaking. “Michael was very much involved in the execution of everything, from the choreography to the location scouting,” says Bob Giraldi, who directed Jackson’s most iconic Pepsi commercials — from the very first “street scene” spot featuring kids dancing with their idol, to the “Bad” series that amounted to a mini action movie — as well as the “Beat It” music video. “He really knew what worked.”
Apart from a short-lived deal with the athletic footwear brand L.A. Gear, other endorsements were scant during the prime of Jackson’s career, though he shot a few international TV spots for Suzuki, Sony and Esonic.
Pepsi, meanwhile, had sales of $7.7 billion in 1984 and an increase in market share while Coca-Cola’s dropped, according to financial reports at the time. Pepsi signed a second, $10 million deal with Jackson in support of his “Bad” album and tour through 1987-88. Where Jackson’s initial deal with Pepsi was limited to the United States, this one was global, covering 20-plus countries during the singer’s world tour.
The trend of Pepsi signing music stars as spokespeople has continued into the present day, with Lionel Richie, Madonna, Beyoncé and Britney Spears all lending their name to the brand. Corporations of all stripes now align themselves frequently with pop artists, but with music and advertising becoming increasingly fragmented, Jackson’s deals with Pepsi will likely remain the industry standard-bearer. Murphy says that 360-degree deals “are very effective, but whether they’ll ever become that front-page newsworthy really depends on the level of wattage of the artist. I don’t know that we’ll see something like this again.”