Sprite’s Small Wonder

You know that when a brand’s attempt to appear “outlaw” descends to the level of showcasing the passion of Alan Thicke’s son, the funky Robin, you’re in big trouble.

That was the case with a recent spot for Sprite, part of a campaign that politely asked, “What’s your thirst?” as opposed to the previous demand, “Obey your thirst.” The latter, created by Lowe in 1994, ushered in a new wave of raw, anti-ad advertising and brought the drink street cred and a spike in sales for years; the account went to Ogilvy in 2001, and the fervor of Thicke came in 2002. Now, in an attempt to hang on to the business and return Sprite to its cooler roots, Ogilvy has introduced a new brand mascot, a vinyl doll named Thirst, a mini-humanoid with an attitudinous mouth.

Like that will help, you say. Like anyone could take a little piece of plastic—with a jaw that doesn’t even move when it speaks—seriously. To that I can only answer that a statement on Conan O’Brien from Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a much less evolved form of vinyl and plastic (more of a fist than a doll), apparently has brought the entire population of Canada to its knees.

But our little Thirst is much cuter and nicer than Triumph. He’s less Shecky Greene and more Chris Rock. (Even if he has a name that reminds me of Speedy Alka-Seltzer.) Voiced by the actor Reno Wilson, Miles Thirst wears miniature Sean John and Rocca Wear-like outfits, microscopically attuned to detail, including an oversized watch. That’s funny. And with his fakeness and his blankness, the little guy can shill some amazingly over-the-top promotional lines about, say, enjoying the “crisp, thirst-quenching, lemon-lime goodness of Sprite,” and get away with it.

There are three new spots, one of which, “Two Sprites,” will also appear in movie theaters. The cinema spot takes place at the movies, a self-referential loop of a concept that, pre-coming-attractions, captive audiences seem to love. (It’s like seeing people in sitcoms watching television.) A popular Coke cinema spot also takes places in a theater—where two young lovers are mouthing the words to Casablanca.

The Sprite spot shows our humanoid taking a row to himself, flanked by two extra-large Sprites in each cup holder, so he’ll “never be too far away from the big, thirst-quenching taste of Sprite.” The joke hinges on two sexy, Bachelorette-ready women, an Anglo and a Latina, filling the seats next to him. There’s a similar ending to “What’s Better,” the most “street” of the three, in which Miles hangs around on a stoop and can’t imagine anything better than Sprite—until two honeys walk by.

The set-up—a sexualized vinyl doll spouting street lingo—could easily devolve into an obvious, annoying, pandering and even racist attempt to get-down-in-the-hood-with-the-bros. Instead, it’s quick, funny and real enough.

The best part of all three spots is the ending, when Thirst says, “Show ’em my motto,” just before the “Obey your thirst” title card pops up. There’s something ineffable in the way he pronounces “mah mah-toe” that’s very funny; he compounds the effect by offering a fist in the air every time he says it, like Mighty Mouse, or Donald Trump saying, “You’re fired.”

The spot with LeBron James is by far the best. For one, there’s no ogling involved. The obvious big/little thing will always get a laugh, but the shock is LeBron’s performance—off court, he tends toward wooden, and here he’s full of personality. In a clever swipe at MTV’s Cribs, King James welcomes Thirst to his house. But Thirst sees the standard brag-ables (“king-size waterbed, plasma screen”) as so much “blah, blah, blah.” That’s until he gets to the kitchen, which offers the usual stainless-steel and granite-topped accouterments but with one addition: a sky-high Sprite machine.

Our little guy delicately swabs his face with a monogrammed hankie. “It’s just so beautiful!” he says, a tear placed on his immobile face. (His lips do sometimes move, into a Trump- or Elvis-like pouty smirk.)

I like this work. The biggest rap on it could be that it’s derivative of Nike’s Lil’ Penny character, but as a strange little homunculus, Miles Thirst connects better. The spots also manage to avoid the category’s usual ploys for 14-year-old boys: doo-doo jokes (7Up) and steamin’-genital yuks (Sierra Mist, with the guy who has the wind beneath his kilt). And Thirst provides a natural device for all sorts of story lines. (He was introduced through viral marketing and has his own happening Web site.)

I’d say he has staying power. At the very least, he’s much cheaper, and less inclined to need a lawyer, than Kobe Bryant.