Baseline Advertising in Review

Comedy to the Max in Pepsi spotThe following column marks the introduction of a new perspective on advertising from the point of view of Barry Base.If any advertiser could be forgiven for swearing off superstar presenters, it has got to be...

Comedy to the Max in Pepsi spot

The following column marks the introduction of a new perspective on advertising from the point of view of Barry Base.

If any advertiser could be forgiven for swearing off superstar presenters, it has got to be Pepsi-Cola.

After repeated, painful, mortifying and expensive trips to the Burn Unit after major media meltdowns encountered cavorting with the likes of Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson and Madonna, you can imagine some still-smoldering executive asking the agency if this time out, couldn’t we take The Less-Travelled Road?

The introductory spots for Pepsi Max do not star stars.

They star supporting players from two of tv’s most popular comedy series, Cheers and Seinfeld, and they are terrific.

In the Seinfeld spot, two of Generation X’s version of the Fab Four bicker over Pepsi Max’s claim to contain all the cola taste with one-third the calories.

Sensational actors

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who plays Elaine on Seinfeld, and Jason Alexander, who has the role of George, are such sensational comedic actors that they can make formula product claims sound like perfectly natural Chinese restaurant chit-chat.

George, the pompous, condescending cynic, suggests Pepsi Max’s one-third-the-calories claim is probably ‘some crazy bigwig at Pepsi just printing up a bunch of false labels!’

And by her willingness to accept the claim at face value, Elaine is ‘Gull-la-bull.’

A combination of performance art and clever editing allows George to obliquely fumble the bean sprouts from his chopsticks no less than five times during this little interchange.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, who looks more delicious than usual in this commercial gig, is, nevertheless, her mercurial, bitchy, caustic Elaine-the-Superwoman self.

And, when, under the nice package-and-product shot at the end, she spits out the punch line, ‘Could you get him a fork?’ George’s verbal castration is complete, and I laughed out loud each of the first three times I watched it.

More predictable

Still very funny, but perhaps a wee bit more predictable, the Cheers spot pairs two members of the old series’ barstool chorus line, George Wendt’s Norm (the plump, beer-swilling Guy Who Never Goes Home) and John Ratzenberger’s Cliff (the loony, loquacious postman), encountering each other in a nondescript kitchen.

Norm is given a piece of business to distract him from Cliff’s goofy ramblings on the subject of Pepsi Max, and it gives the spot a loopy sort of tension.

He is obsessively trying to tune in a ball game on an ancient rabbit-eared portable tv, with what seem to be reception-enhancing Pepsi cans spiked onto the antennae.

It’ll explode

We know a can of the product is going to explode at some point, despite Cliff’s scientific thesis to the contrary: ‘lower pressure created by the chilling will keep the expansionary forces of the carbon dioxide at bay.’

And when it does, we have already cut to the beauty shot, but Cliff’s ‘Oh, Jeez’ paints a wildly funny slapstick picture.

What makes these spots such good entertainment is what made the respective series so wonderful.

Super, sharp writing. And marvellously conceived, flawlessly played characters.

Drama truism

Here, the less-than-leading role players again demonstrate a truism of drama from Shakespeare to Charles Shultz, which is that once a central character is roundly formed, all the fascinating eccentricities left over can be wired together to create decidedly more interesting peripheral figures.

Which is why Linus and Snoopy were always more fun to watch than Charlie Brown, and George and Elaine might just steal Seinfeld from Seinfeld.

Proposition sparks humor

What makes these things such good advertising is that the humor arises directly from the selling proposition (one-third the calories), and that proposition is hammered home explicitly in Procter & Gamble fashion at least five times in the two spots, in spite of the fact the spots surprised us, made us laugh, blew up the product and trashed a Pepsi executive.

It is not a rock video, it is not a computer-anything. This is a return to great, hard-working, four-and-a-half star, near magical stuff.

‘Elementary’ and ‘Gull-A-Bull’ are the new Pepsi Max spots from J. Walter Thompson, Toronto.

The Wrap Up:

Great advertising through great characters, great performances, great writing, great editing, great proposition, great storytelling, kids!

The Distant Mirror:

Those wonderful Mariette Hartly/ James Garner spots for Polaroid.

The Shot To Die For:

The look on Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ face a split-second before the cut to the beauty shot (You’d swear she’d just realized George’s face was crawling with maggots!)

The Performance Moment:

The way she says ‘Sigmund!’.

The Thought For Today:

If Michael Jackson was once worth five million to Pepsi, what is the Seinfeld spot worth to the producers of Seinfeld, and who should be paying whom for airing it on the Superbowl?

Barry Base has been making ad campaigns as creative director of his own agency since the late 1960s. He owns and operates Barry Base & Partners in Toronto.