While brand IS Brisk,the ads are baffling

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Marketer: PepsiCo/Lipton
Agency: J. Walter Thompson USA, New York
Ad Review rating: Two stars

What an interesting case: entertaining, memorable commercials by a market leader in a fast-growing category. And it's still not very good advertising.

The product is Lipton Brisk, the canned iced tea. Since someone figured out how to cold-fill cans with this stuff, and someone else figured out how to market it not like a New Age beverage but like a soda pop, this category has exploded. (As new categories are wont to do.) Consumers who want to take a break from carbonated, caffeine-laden sugar water now can cool off with 12 frosty ounces of non-carbonated, caffeine-laden sugar water. Talk about your progress.

And there is Brisk leading the pack, including Coca-Cola's Nestea entry, thanks to . . . uh, good question. Maybe the PepsiCo-Lipton head start in the market is responsible, because as clever as the advertising sometimes is, it isn't very sound.

Brisk ads feature stop-action-animated celebrities--Frank Sinatra, Sylvester Stallone, etc.--in tense or heated situations. Which make them thirsty. Get it? Then the star gulps down a can and says, "That's Brisk, baby."

The problem is, the animated figures so comically resemble the celebrities, it's hard to focus on whatever slender product connection the ads make. And the connection is indeed slender.

We are never told, for instance, why we want to eschew carbonation. We aren't told about a new taste sensation. We aren't told about easier-to-chug refreshment. All we're told, basically, is that there's a canned drink out there called Brisk.

The brand name does jump out, because the label is in color and the animation is in b&w, and it's a lucky thing. It's a lucky thing that brand advertising works. It's a lucky thing that with enough tonnage, even inferior brand advertising works.

The latest installment of the Brisk campaign is the most baffling of all. The premise is that George and Louise Jefferson, the '70s sitcom characters, are at Planet Hollywood, pressuring co-owner Bruce Willis to devote a display to them.

"Willis," Jefferson barks, "you gonna put a George Jefferson display at Planet Hollywood, or what?"

"Sorry, pal," Willis replies. "Stopped movin' on up in the '70s."

"Take him to the cleaners, 'Weezie!" George commands. And then what happens? Why, the Jeffersons attack him, of course.

Down but never out, Willis fortifies himself, Popeye-like, with Brisk and prevails--after causing a gigantic whale model to fall from the restaurant ceiling and crush them to death.

Ha ha! Dead aggressive, washed up, African-American sitcom stars. That's Brisk, baby.

J. Walter Thompson USA, New York, and PepsiCo are quite pleased with themselves to have unveiled this spot on the Oscar telecast, because the inside jokes will play to the celebrity-savvy audience. But even granting a special affinity with things Hollywood, the only thing the audience could possibly have taken from the commercial was confusion.

Confusion as in "What are those characters saying? The dialogue is incomprehensible." Confusion as in "What's going on? The plot is incomprehensible." Confusion as in "Why is there a whale on the ceiling? Is it Moby Dick?" Confusion as in "What does this all have to do with iced tea?"

But, once again, no confusion about who the advertiser is. That would be Brisk. It's right there on the label.

So why not save a lot of time and money, and just shoot the label?

Copyright March 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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