Pepsi Gets Peevish

An opening volley in the Vanilla wars is a feel-bad jibe

C’mon, monkeys, dance!” That sounds like Mr. Burns (Homer Simpson’s boss), rubbing his hands together with glee as he watches some hapless nuclear-reactor workers get injured. But instead, the line is uttered by a bored guy in a cheese store as he and his buddy flip the power on and off for a Pepsi Vanilla machine across the street—the very same machine into which two desperate, doofy guys have already dropped their money. Responding to the on/off, the guys keep hopping and jumping at every surge, hoping a can will drop.

The spot broke during the MTV Video Music Awards, and all I could think as Madonna kissed Britney (so spontaneous!) was that “C’mon, monkeys, dance!” is a definitive line for our media-saturated, hypermanipulated times. It covers both the never-ending lineup of programmed, processed singer-dancer clones onstage trying to be fabulous (Beyoncé being the latest) and the viewer at home who keeps hopping to attention and getting “shocked” by each successive “event.”

Why was the kiss such a big deal? Because it was manipulated to be such a big deal. It’s the same for “reality” shows: Every scene is stage-managed and edited for maximum conflict, tension or humiliation. Yet among viewers/ consumers, there seems to be an unspoken agreement—we know it’s fake, but we agree to watch and get upset as if it were real, because we need something to talk about, and it’s all we have. C’mon, monkeys, dance.

But my guess is that Pepsi is less interested in making a searing social statement and more concerned with launching a new flavor offensive in the cola wars: specifically, playing catch-up with, and then killing, Vanilla Coke.

Pepsi started out great, a few weeks before “Monkeys,” with “Trucks,” which is entertaining and also rings with a certain authenticity, evoking the brands’ competitive history and jokey, smart-alecky tone. A Vanilla Coke delivery truck is stopped at a red light on a wide city street, and a Pepsi Vanilla truck pulls up beside it. The Coke driver turns up his music and embarrassingly rocks out. The Pepsi guy then opens some side doors, revealing huge speakers, and releases hydraulic valves that make chrome rims and stepboards appear. The front of the truck jumps up and down—to hip-hop music. The people on the street start to cheer.

It fits perfectly into the cola-wars canon. The Coke driver caught on videotape buying a Pepsi, for example, was the same idea; it also smacks of competitive swipes at Coke going back to “Anthropology.” Plus, it’s a crowd pleaser for bottlers’ conventions—huge for the truckers. The concept is certainly not new. The stopping-at-the-light thing/lowrider-jumping-with-competing-music has been seen in car and beer spots. But there’s undeniable visual fun in seeing a tricked-out truck hop. And the setup is clever—it’s a literal way to show that Coke was there first, but Pepsi is better.

The only discordant note comes at the end, with the Coke trucker delivering the line, “That was awesome.” We could see for ourselves that it was awesome, but coming from this guy’s mouth, it’s about as believable as Michael Jackson’s MTV Awards kiss with then-wife Lisa Marie Presley. It punctures our entertainment bubble.

But leaving Jackson and Bubbles, let’s get back to our monkey boys. Unlike “awesome,” one of the first lines spoken by our jumpers comes off as very natural. One guy points out that there’s a Coke machine just across the way; his amigo responds, “Trust me, they’re not even close.” The guys are then shown hopping “42 minutes later,” with the cheese-store guy at the switch, saying, “This just never gets old.”

But the thing is, it does get old. It’s downright hostile, and it’s weird territory for Pepsi to be entering. Talk about defining “aspirational” downward. These Pepsi drinkers have nothing to do all night but hop idiotically in front of a machine? It’s not as though they were drawn there hypnotically like the guys in the Mountain Dew commercial. And does Pepsi really want to suggest a lack of juice?

Is it showing class struggle? (Cheese guys have dull, badly paid, monotonous jobs and want to make the lazy slackers suffer.) Or is it unintentionally showing the company id—to have consumers acting like puppets on a string? All that is sort of feel-bad. Apparently there is closure in sight, and the next spot will show one of the doofi getting a can, thus launching the second act of this dramatic monkey-jumping arc.

The spot sure doesn’t make you thirsty for that great new vanilla taste. And to show people so aggressively not getting any, that’s pretty radical. But maybe, given today’s media overdrive and oversaturation, deprivation is the new “real” thing.