BOB GARFIELD'S AD REVIEW;SNAPPLE SEES NO. 3 AS A WINNING SLOT

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A couple of years ago, when our beloved Nittany Lions took a commanding lead over Tennessee in the third quarter of the Citrus Bowl, the Ad Review staff was exultant.

"We're No. 8!" we chanted. "We're No. 8!"

A proud moment, as we savored the pitiless humbling of quarterback Heath Shuler while coming to terms with our alma mater's nonnumberoneness. Confronting these things directly can be liberating, you know.

Quaker Oats Co. knows. Having paid close to $730 trillion for Snapple based on sales projections approximating the gross national product, and having been shocked by marketplace reality, Quaker has embarked on a semiserious crusade not to be No. 1 in beverages, nor even No. 2, but a wide-mouth, all-natural No. 3. Five amusing commercials from Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners, New York, occasionally make that point.

One shows a parade, complete with marching bands, declaring the crusade with such banners as "threedom=freedom." Another brilliantly exploits digital compositing to resurrect the Life cereal "Hey, Mikey" spot, but here the youngest freckle-face tastes one Snapple flavor that he doesn't like.

Another creates a cheesy "Star Trek"-like adventure in search of new diet Snapple flavors. The hilarious twist is that the characters are sock puppets. A fourth lampoons '60s couture and cinema to talk about exotic flavors. And the last of them pays homage to Coke and Pepsi, as human Snapple bottles declare, "We love colas!" and ask only to be made No. 3.

Enlisting the consumer in the marketer's quest for success, of course, can be dicey. People don't much care what they can do for the advertiser; they care what the advertiser can do for them. Snapple's crusade, however, conforms to a great tradition of advertising self-deprecation: Volkswagen, Burger King and, especially, Avis.

The spots are sure entertaining. "Threedom=freedom" is charming and absurd, the revisionist "Mikey" seamless and inspired, and the sock puppets magnificently apropos of nothing. This latest expression that Snapple doesn't take itself too seriously remains refreshing, even compared with the perennially comic Pepsi campaign that has been bashing Coke so long that the joke is getting thin and unnerving.

While positioning itself as an alternative to the cola monoliths is just another iteration of the strategy employed by 7UP, RC and Dr Pepper, off and on, without great success, for years, there is still something appealing about the feisty-yet-good-natured underdog. This campaign could well tap into that-if it were an actual campaign, which it is not.

What it is is two wonderful, unrelated commercials tied by tagline only to three pretty good but not particularly complementary commercials. The whole, in other words, is less than the sum of its parts.

In the end the overriding message is not numberthreeness or flavor variety or all-natural or anything at all-unless possibly the advertising-cultivated image of corporate quirkiness that we already know about. But that image, which took Snapple to the Citrus Bowl of beverage marketing, has taken it no farther. If the Threedom March goes nowhere, Quaker will itself have to confront the disturbing possibility that it has done with Snapple what the Washington Redskins did with Tennessee quarterback Heath Shuler:

Tragically overpaid.

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