Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Leaner and Meaner

The jig is up on the big blockbusters for Pepsi—the cola company has moved to smaller stories in its advertising. In recent years, Coke and Pepsi have been taking turns on that pendulum, and Coke introduced some work early this year that had a similar idea: that cola ads could actually be thirst-making and take the time to point out that the drink is delicious with food. (Coke had a spot involving an empanada that truly acted on the salivary glands, but it was part of the “Real” campaign, which lacked cohesion and an overall theme. Now it seems to have disappeared.)

Pepsi, of course, is famous for its Michael Jackson meltdown (that was before he looked like the damaged spawn of Catwoman and the Joker) and big boop-be-doop number with Britney Spears. But in the end, despite all the production mastery that Pepsi extravaganzas showed, the can-you-top-this aspect began to be a losing battle.

So why not go back to basics? In that sense, Pepsi’s latest campaign is sort of a “Got milk?” for the caramel-flavored fizz. But it’s a more complicated sell, because while some foods go especially well with milk (say, chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter) and some are naturals with cola (chips and hamburgers), there’s only one milk and there are many colas.

The new tag is “Pepsi. It’s the cola.” Which brings up the question, Why promote the existence of any other cola? Why not say, “It’s the Pepsi-cola”? It doesn’t track quite as well, but it is kinda cute. I think this tag will evolve exactly the way “The joy of cola” turned into “The joy of Pepsi.” Even if the powers that be at Pepsi believe there is only one cola, every viewer also thinks of Coke. All four commercials are brought together by a clever final phrase, delivered by a regular-sounding guy in voiceover (“Nothing chases chips like a Pepsi,” for example) who comes off like someone out of The Wonder Years.

While all the spots are good, the most interesting is “Summer Job,” the one with the girl in a hot-dog suit. While the idea sounds stupid, this manages to be endearing and charming. And with its unexpected music and casting, it suggests some of the bittersweet, post-adolescent melancholy of Volkswagen’s “Mr. Blue Sky.”

None of the elements is particularly new. On Paris Hilton’s upcoming Fox show, The Simple Life, the producers put her to work in an Arkansas fast-food parking lot in a similar suit, for maximum humiliation. And one of last year’s Budweiser spots featured a guy in an upside-down clown suit and a request for a hot dog, but that was amazingly perverse and this is innocent. The idea here came from the Blind Melon video for “No Rain” with the awkward little girl in the bee costume. BBDO bought that song and hired the director of the video, Sam Bayer. Speaking of wieners, the spot also captures some of the pathos of Dawn Weiner, the loser with glasses trapped in middle school in Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Furter girl is trying her best to hand out flyers for the grand reopening of Wiener World, but every recipient immediately dumps the handout. She’s dejected, life is grim. Walking away, she has a moment of grace—across the street, standing in front of a big Pepsi promotion at a gas station, is Pepsi Can Boy. Their eyes meet, and later their hands touch across the chasm, like god giving Adam life, and they stroll off into the sunset, a can on legs and his walking lunch meat. “Hot dogs love Pepsi. Pepsi loves hot dogs,” the voiceover guy says.

The regular canine variety of dog stars in “Just Lunch,” the simplest of all the spots. The camera remains locked on a still life with sandwich and Pepsi on a kitchen counter, where the combo has been left, a tableau livened up by the music, “Secret Agent Man.” The dog gobbles up lunch, and there’s a kicker involving a cat. There was a similar scenario involving a dog and cat in a Polaroid spot a couple of years back, but this is fresh enough.

“Tailgating” is made for extra-large hungry men, and it features NFL music and footage of the “bold warriors” and “proud gladiators” of the parking-lot grill. There’s a funny shot of a chicken leg spiraling just like a football. This seems like the biggest departure for the No. 2 cola company—this actually infiltrates the beer category.

That’s also the case for “Vacuum,” which is funny and wonderfully produced but seems quite Budweiser-y. The comedian Dave Chappelle waits for his date in her incredibly appointed downtown loft. Eating chips and drinking Pepsi in a state-of-the-art stainless-steel kitchen, he’s assaulted by a little robotic vacuum cleaner, which sucks up the chips and goes after the Pepsi with such violence that it pulls his pants off. That’s when the date appears. “Your vacuum ate my pants,” he tells her. “There’s nothing I could do.”

Maybe Pepsi is competing with beer. Bud and Pepsi seem to go head to head every year at the Super Bowl, in terms of vying to win the consumer ad poll. But for now, Pepsi is thinking small(er) and thinking food, and especially around the holidays, it’s pretty convincing.