The Anatomy of Pepsi Ads Through the Generations

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005_Clive-Brunskill - Credit: Clive Brunskill (via Getty)
005_Clive-Brunskill - Credit: Clive Brunskill (via Getty)

With the launch of Pepsi Max’s “Uncle Drew” campaign in 2012, there was a touch of Eddie Murphy in Coming to America and a dash of Jackass, with a covert Kyrie Irving under piles of Hollywood makeup, pairing surprising improv comedy chops with his incredible hoop skills. What there wasn’t, however, was any overt sense that this irresistible short film happened to be, in fact, a soda commercial.

After scoring nine-figure views on YouTube, the beloved prank series made the ultimate evolutionary leap, becoming a legit Hollywood comedy release with an extended ensemble including Tiffany Haddish, JB Smoove, and veteran Pepsi pitchman Shaquille O’Neal, among others. This feature film version was directed by Charles Stone III, who launched his own Hollywood career via the comparably original, insurgent, and influential Budweiser “Whassup?” ads that swept pop culture in the Nineties. And Stone, conversely, was directly influenced by another basketball-obsessed auteur by the name of Spike Lee, who, starting from the earliest days of his trailblazing career in the 1980s, poured as much individuality into boldly post-modern pop ad campaign work as his feature films.

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Modestly budgeted, the Uncle Drew movie wasn’t a blockbuster, but it performed well enough. And as a testament to Pepsi’s enduring capacity for pushing forward what an ad can deliver and achieve, the outcome was a 720-degree slam dunk: dizzying and difficult in the extreme, and a glimpse of the future.

Ah, what a long, strange sip it’s been. Glancing back, the remarkable journey of Pepsi commercials from somewhat common to sensational largely tracks to the blurred lines between “content” and “commercial” that started getting real fizzy in the free market “me-me-me” decade of the 1980s, which also saw the flourishing of digital special effects.

Let’s take a look at how Pepsi’s intrepid TV spot track record slowly took shape.

Pepsi Generation (1960s) — Dipping In

The soft drink revolution was definitely televised. Some may say taste is everything, but don’t discount image. It’s hard to imagine now, of course, but well before cola assumed the role of wholesome, sweetly feel-good global treat for all, the category started out as a small town American drug store treatment for morphine addiction and indigestion. TV as a technology began in the early 1930s, but not until the 1950s did a majority of Americans even have a set, and it wasn’t until a decade later when color programming took hold. As a coherent medium, television would take even longer to coalesce. The earliest ads were basically radio spots with visuals. And from today’s vantage point, early-1960s Pepsi TV ads look nearly Victorian.

In one characteristic spot, men in suits and ties dance formally with women in Lucille Ball-gowns as if Lawrence Welk will slip into the frame at any moment. The effect is geriatric-peppy-glam — with an almost cocktail-hour sensibility and a set that looks like a Rotary Club aping the Stork Club. “Stay young and fair and debonair… be sociable. Have a Pepsi!” (And, to be fair, if you owned a TV in 1960, you probably weren’t a teenager or driving a tractor.)

From there came a pivot to Kennedy White House vibes, with sailing, swimsuits, and the great outdoors. “Now it’s Pepsi… for those who think young.” Think indeed, for Pepsi wasn’t apparently speaking to actual kids yet. Or even families. The focus was young-adult couples for most of the decade, and 1964 feels like a turning point in terms of budget, scale, and style, with proto-The Mamas & the Papas sounds — “Come alive! Come alive! You’re in the Pepsi generation!” — and a fetching young pair speeding care-and-helmet-free on a Vespa through the winding hills of, I don’t know, Malibu Creek State Park or similar environs, serving up a bit of Steve McQueen plus some Beat Generation energy under sweeping aerial shots that were no doubt lavish for the times. Making it all even more swinging-groovy-mod, a helicopter drops a Pepsi vending machine from what is surely a clear blue California sky (if only the ad was in color!) for our cool couple.

The second half of the decade starts to feature color Pepsi ads, and by the end of the decade, people of color. A more family-oriented sensibility also started to appear, though the “Pepsi Generation” remained largely centered on young adults being active; racing, riding, flying, etc. And while most of the ads are hardly mold-breakers, you can feel an energy building.

Pepsi Generation (1970s) — Getting Pop

Sporty lifestyle montages and omniscient voice overs still dominate over more inventive, story-driven ads, but there starts to emerge a greater focus on families, with more youthfulness and groovy sounds. The NBA is also highlighted as a marketing partner with Walt Frazier appealing directly to young sports fans. And, of course, we know that this decade saw Pepsi’s storied marriage with bona fide pop music stars start to build momentum.

But perhaps the most distinctive development of the decade was the blind taste test “Pepsi Challenge” campaign, confronting Pepsi’s main competition through real consumers, a device which would resurface in varying forms for years to come, offering playful shades of Candid Camera. It’s selling, sure. But it’s also a participatory spectacle that makes better use of the medium in an era when game shows were at their pinnacle.

Meanwhile, Saturday Night Live debuted with TV commercial parodies as a staple feature of that new American comedy-entertainment institution right from the jump. For TV-raised baby boomers, after all, the commercial form practically compelled spoofing. SNL was a perfect machine for permeating the culture with catchphrases and water cooler moments. Why wouldn’t Madison Avenue try to get in on that fun and action, seeking to beat satirists to the punchline by making ads that, to some degree, can work as crowd-pleasing sketches in their own right?

Such ads-as-entertainment blending in would become a prime target in the years ahead. Direct product placement in Hollywood movies is one form of content/ad blending, and the most clear-cut, perhaps — with Pepsi’s own Joan Crawford working that angle well before it was de rigueur. But an even better way to blend is by creating something original and undeniable that centers the consumer/viewer more than the product.

As a medium, TV allowed marketers to go from tell to show. The next jump would be from show to entertain.

Pepsi Generation (1980s) — Breaking Out

With this seminal decade, diversity grows, big pop music bets pay off to unprecedented levels, and Pepsi’s TV ad creative goes new Hollywood.

“Pepsi. The choice of a new generation,” intones an uncredited Martin Sheen with sober, Captain Williard gravitas — punctuating a slew of spots that brought Spielbergian production values to mini-movies that, instead of centering the product or its taste, centered the changing entertainment tastes of the audience.

We see the Transformers in action well before Michael Bay. We get Michael J. Fox hot off Back to the Future and a high concept look back from a future where Pepsi remains ubiquitous but other brands are long forgotten. There are shades of John Hughes teen humor and elaborate homages to popular hits like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

And after a Simpson-Bruckheimer decade where a slick Hollywood movie like Top Gun can look and sound like a sizzling military recruitment ad, why should we be surprised that military recruitment ads will start to look and sound like slick Hollywood movies? (That is, until they start to look and sound like slick video games.)

And what’s the actual difference anyway?

From the 90s onward, Pepsi succeeded in operating not all that unlike a diversified Hollywood studio — signing up big stars, producing all manner of entertainment content at various budget levels, adding international territories, covering action, romance, comedy, fashion, sports. Pepsi is no longer just sponsoring or reflecting the culture. Pepsi is often contributing directly.

To get Nile Rodgers about it, the DHM (deep hidden meaning) seems to be that Pepsi will always go further in raising the creative stakes — and blurring the lines. Cut to Beyoncé and Jennifer Lopez teamed up in a stylized, Charlie’s Angels via Quentin Tarantino action movie with David Beckham that spares no expense. Or a crusty William H. Macy in an even splashier, seamlessly Ridley Scott-scaled sci-fi epic facing off with Baby Yoda’s cuter cousin shortly before, incredibly, the world was introduced to Baby Yoda.

You don’t know it’s an ad until you do.

How now will Pepsi transfix the TikTok generation? If we are entering a post-star period, what will spectacular look like? Will we soon find ourselves the active protagonist in a fully immersive virtual reality adventure with just a peripheral flicker of Pepsi somewhere in the pulsing, Blade Runner background? Will AI start making augmented reality Pepsi ads tailored directly to our individual experiences?

Predictions are risky, but it’s a reasonably safe bet to venture that, whatever future frontiers prove fertile, Pepsi will manage to delight us with precisely what we don’t see coming.

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