Is Pepsi's Pass on Super Bowl an Offensive or Defensive Move?

When One of the Games Big Ad Spenders Pulls Out, It Raises a Lot of Questions

By Published on .

The bound stacks of marketing and advertising magazines are filled with mentions of zig and zag. The marketer should zig when everyone else is zagging. Zig and zag, not coincidentally, are often put to the task of pulling the cart of increased ad spending. As in: Company X, instead of retreating during a recession, zigged when everyone else zagged, and spent more money on marketing.

Full disclosure: I'm a student in that particular school of thought myself.

But what happens to a marketer that zags when everyone else is zigging?

We'll find out this year as PepsiCo, one of the annual big spenders in the Super Bowl, yanks all advertising for its beverage brands from the game.

PepsiCo claims its move is a natural outgrowth of taking brand Pepsi in a more socially responsible direction. That makes strategic sense -- for brand Pepsi. It would seem the height of hypocrisy for a brand taking on the mantle of do-gooderism to spend the millions of dollars creating and running high-profile Super Bowl spots. Indeed, that alone might mark PepsiCo as the first marketer on the face of the Earth to proactively worry about being hypocritical.

But that leaves any number of nagging doubts and suspicions. This had nothing to do with saving money after a few tough years? Or with the perception that Coca-Cola's Super Bowl creative has been trouncing Pepsi's? And what about the other beverage brands, such as Sobe and Gatorade? If they're not part of brand Pepsi's social responsibility crusade, why were they yanked? Don't get me wrong, the Sobe spots I always found to be among the biggest wastes of money in Super Bowl history. But Gatorade? Sure, it'll probably have some in-game presence, but I find it hard to believe that the decision to bench Gatorade spots isn't an admission that last year's G relaunch has made a loser of the all-time champ of sports drinks. Finally, if it's so worried by charges of hypocrisy, why leave Doritos on the field? Are the consumer-generated contests that much cheaper? Or does the company (rightfully) assume consumers won't make the connection between PepsiCo and Doritos?

I'm sure a good defense team and an impartial judge would overrule all of these leading questions, so let's leave them alone for now.

The fact of the matter is, no one knows how this will play out for Pepsi. I could prognosticate but my track record is about on par with that of a Wall Street analyst -- which isn't saying much.

We've made a big deal in these pages about Hyundai's very smart use of the Super Bowl over recent years. The Korean automaker had pundits go from "What are they doing blowing money in the game?" to "Wow. That was smart." But Hyundai's challenges were (and are) much different than Pepsi's. It was working as the underdog in a category very much in flux. It also had the benefit of advertising in one of the few Super Bowl ad categories that isn't expected to churn out jaw-dropping creative. Finally, it was offering something new -- the Genesis and the Assurance Program.

Pepsi, on the other hand, is the No. 2 brand in a mature category that in all likelihood has reached its peak. It's spending millions to convince consumers that its flavored sugar (or sugarless) water is better than Coke's offerings. It's expected to provide Super Bowl-worthy creative, and if it doesn't, it's criticized for not delivering.

All of this and the company has no way of knowing if there really is an impact on the bottom line.

If nothing else, Pepsi can use this move as an experiment. What if it pulled out of the Super Bowl and sales didn't move? (And how much would the NFL and broadcast networks be willing to pay Pepsi to hide that information?)

Either way, that would provide an interesting lesson for all in the marketing industry about throwing good money after bad -- and zagging when others are zigging.

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