In retrospect, it might look inevitable, the sticky-sweet commercial marriage between soda pop and pop music. (Catchy jingles worked. Why shouldn’t catchy hit songs work even better?) But in actuality, it was far from a sure bet back when Pepsi started formulating their strategic play to become the drink of a “new generation.”
The storied Pepsi pop pivot dates back roughly to 1960 — read: pre-bikini America, still largely an Eisenhower-drab sea of crew cuts, including Elvis, who’d been unceremoniously shorn and shipped off to the army. It was an era when most of the youth idols on bedroom walls hailed from sports teams, not record labels. The prospect of a pop band selling out Shea stadium? Inconceivable.
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As Alan Pottash, the intrepid PepsiCo ad exec who launched the “Pepsi Generation” campaign in 1963, later conceded: “For us to name and claim a whole generation after our product was a rather courageous thing that we weren’t sure would take off.” Pottash had a hunch, however, that music would grease the skids to the younger crowd.
The following year, the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan debut drew 73 million viewers, with the Fab Four playing to ecstatic screams that signaled something seismic. The year after that, ‘65, their screaming fans filled Shea.
A more colorful new world was underway.
Talkin’ ‘Bout My Pepsi Generation
Pottash was prescient — and, he would probably add, lucky. But if your domineering cola competition is the beverage for everyone, steeped in wholesome, folksy Americana and quaint but increasingly dissonant nostalgia, why not draw a stark differentiating value proposition in the sand? Why not brand your otherwise comparable alternative as the beverage for “Those Who Think Young,” and thereby surely crave new sounds? If you were fundamentally hopeful and believed, for example, that soda fountains, public spaces, and ultimately the airwaves themselves would be fully integrated, you had to bet on the future.
America’s unprecedented post-WWII economic prosperity minted the modern teenager, helped along with plenty of encouragement from eager marketers. Music just happened to express that extended adolescent energy the most reliably and inclusively. Music could certainly cross borders far easier than America’s other leading exports: Hollywood films and TV shows.
Yet it’s also relevant, à la the Beatles on Sullivan, how much an accompanying motion picture component mattered, whether we’re talking Hendrix or The Monkees. Monterey Pop and Woodstock were historic “counterculture” events, for example, but what really made them count in the culture is that they were filmed and could therefore be broadcast. Repeatedly. Seeing is believing. Image is packaging.
Grooving on into the 70s, new gen music became a bigger mainstream business than ever. Pepsi’s marketing master stroke was to be positioned credibly for the next wave: the national, then international, breakout of MTV in the early 80s. Pepsi had already set a foundation of music-aligned success working with B.B. King and Johnny Cash prior, but the music video form, cementing the delicious flavor-blend of sound and image 24/7, would supersede the power of radio to mint a new era of superstars.
And within that increasingly visual pop paradigm, why couldn’t soda commercials also be premium big-budget music videos? Why couldn’t Pepsi be the splashy corporate sponsor and de facto promoter of major live tours aimed squarely at the newest new generation? Why wouldn’t Woodstock baby boomer parents bring their families to big and far safer, state-of-the-art arena or stadium concerts, hold the mud and day-long traffic jams? With Pottash still at the helm, Pepsi boldly ponied up unprecedented million-dollar sums to find out. They scored big in market share. Even better, the brand claimed the mantle of true pop culture icon by carbonated osmosis.
Appraising the industry sea change that was Pepsi’s record-setting slew of ‘80s artist deals — with huge tours and music video commercials that became event viewing with massive premieres and media coverage — it’s worth doubling back to the Beatles. The Liverpool lads famously had a ritual to cheer themselves up after a hard day’s night of dismal, cheap, beer-soaked Hamburg club sets. Where we going, lads? one Beatle would call out to the rest, teeing up the defiantly upbeat collective reply: To the toppermost of the poppermost!
Well, the super-sponsorship template Pepsi devised in partnerships with the likes of Tina Turner, Madonna, Britney Spears, Beyoncé, and Shakira, among others, set new heights for that mantra. The Beatles were trailblazers in many ways, but perhaps chiefly because they weren’t diminished by mass appeal pop permeation — unlike their immediate predecessor Elvis, for whom disposable trinkets and movies signaled a downward spiral. On the contrary, the Beatles proved that commercial ubiquity could open the door to greater independence and artistic vitality.
The next generation of ambitious pop heroes — who also clearly understood that their look was an essential musical hook (e.g., Prince, Madonna) — took note. And so, given its unprecedented mass reach, a Pepsi sponsorship deal became the elite award more anointing than a Grammy. Sure, it’s a generous payday from the jump, but that’s just the tip of the remunerative iceberg. For one practical matter, if you truly want to be here, there, and everywhere Beatles-style, consider the number of locations selling records across the world (even back when record store chains were a thing) versus the number selling soda.
And for Pepsi’s side of the symbiotic exchange, it’s important to remember that before the internet, pop music was easily the most viral thing going. (Now, factoring in TikTok alone, it probably still holds that status.)
With Britney and Beyoncé as the crowning examples, Pepsi sponsorship not only announced that you’d arrived, it lifted you to new heights — in profile, sales, touring opportunities, everything. Forget selling out, here was a reliable model for selling in. Pepsi, in a sense, became a new pop channel, one that also served as a dependable, unfailingly respectful partner for more legacy artists like David Bowie, Robert Palmer, and Ray Charles to grab the mainstream spotlight and amplify their legends.
Overall, the grand Pepsi-pop alliance reshaped the larger cultural landscape considerably. Remember, American Bandstand was syndicated daytime television. Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live were late night. And while MTV had its day, it was still walled off within the boundaries of basic cable ratings-wise, and gradually dropped music video programming to compete for eyeballs.
Hence, in America, who more than Pepsi placed pop squarely into prime time? Madonna’s Pepsi period was frontpage news.
And when Pepsi took ownership of the Super Bowl Halftime Show with Prince’s unsurpassed (and quasi-miraculous) performance in 2007, the brand set a new standard for the biggest live show on the planet — one they largely lived up to over the next decade.
Funny enough, consumers don’t generally respond well to the actual reinvention of products yet still want their brands to be fresh and new, forever young. Well, it’s not as easy as it looks for a soda giant, picking winners and harnessing ground-up trends without tripping over anything divisive and deflating the big tent they need to survive. Any major brand in the game long enough, soda or otherwise, will suffer some missteps and mishaps. Yet Pepsi’s musical track record stands up with an astonishing ratio of hits over misses.
The slogans change. The stars change. But it’s basically the same marketing formula for over 60 years, the Dorian Gray of ad campaigns. Other brands try to follow this music-centered playbook — Bacardi, for one, is aligning with pop artists and focusing on the festival circuit in particular — but Pepsi set the stage.
And having recently moved on from the Super Bowl, Team Pepsi is now making interesting moves around eclectic, yet impactful artists that suggest they may once again be seeing around pop culture corners. At a minimum, they are demonstrating that their commitment to music extends deep beneath the glossy surface.
That said, their recent pact with Bad Bunny shows Pepsi is still leaving plenty of room for massive stars — the more international, the better.
Soda pop, meanwhile, remains America’s defining beverage contribution to the world — the original energy drink. And what’s it all about if not fun? With global culture still shaped by the uniquely American idea that youth is the ultimate virtue, pop music itself is like that flash in the pan that endlessly switches pans to keep the eternal flame of youth burning. And why not?
And when the right artist meets the right moment, with the right push, the whole world can still catch fire in a joyful way (for a change). Pepsi has managed to deftly serve up that exciting-but-still-big-tent-safe hotness way more often than luck and million-dollar budgets alone can assure.
Now who but the hopelessly old at heart will deny that’s refreshing?
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