Perspective: Generation Appreciation

Sometimes selling the demo profile of a product rather than the product itself sparks connection

Targeting the right demographic has always been delicate business for brands. Jingles and logos come and go. But only audience targeting carries with it the inherent risk that by too closely zeroing in on one group, a brand can inadvertently alienate another. Just look at these two ads for Pepsi below.

Back in the early 1960s, the generation born to GIs returning home from World War II was reaching its teen years. From the start, there was something different about these kids. With no memory of the Depression or the war, they were surprisingly optimistic and carefree. As Pepsi’s corporate history later put it, these youngsters were defined by a “conviction that what lay ahead was better than what lay behind.” Later on, demographers would call this group the baby boomers. But in 1963, Pepsi didn’t know what to call them—it just knew that it wanted them.

Enter adman Alan Pottasch, who decided to take a gamble. Instead of miring his campaign in the quagmire of comparing Pepsi with rival Coke, Pottasch proposed something revolutionary. He made the campaign about the demographic he hoped would buy the product instead of the product itself. “[It] was a rather courageous thing that we weren’t sure would take off,” Pottasch recalled in later years.

But it did take off. The demographic was called the “Pepsi generation,” and in print ads (such as the iconic one below), the brand bid everyone to come join it. All you had to do was “Come alive!” Millions did.

“There’s a sense of freeness to this ad; they really nailed it,” observes Gordon Plotkin, principal and founder of Inwork Inc., a creative and technical design consultancy. “But,” he adds, “the campaign also captured a larger audience. It encompassed a lot of people.” He’s right. Though the ad’s knit-cap-wearing stars may be just old enough to drive, the true genius behind “Pepsi generation” was that its membership was a state of mind more than a date of birth. Its chief asset, Plotkin notes, was inclusiveness.

That’s why Pepsi’s 2011 effort (also below) is bound to lead to some head scratching. Diet Pepsi’s Skinny Can, rolled out in February in a nod to Fashion Week. While the ad’s aesthetics are sleek and new, its aim is the same as ever: the quest for the right demographic—in this case, “beautiful, confident women,” according to a company release. The only problem was, as Plotkin points out, “this ad doesn’t express a generation—it expresses a moment.”

And therein lies a lesson. The more strictly a brand defines its “in” crowd, the more consumers it alienates by default (lots of groups complained about the skinny can, including the National Eating Disorders Association). Perhaps that’s why, even after 47 years, that 1963 ad for Pepsi still looks more inviting. After all, coming alive is something we can all do; being a supermodel isn’t.