DIET PEPSI GETS FRESH, AND THAT COULD SLAP BRAND

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That syringe-in-the-Pepsi hoax must have given Craig Weatherup a real shot in the arm. The president and ceo of Pepsi-Cola North America was so successful on TV telling consumers there was nothing unwholesome in their soda cans, now he's back, warning us that maybe there is.

"As we've demonstrated time and again," Weatherup says in one of seven spots from BBDO Worldwide, New York, "no one cares more about quality than Pepsi-which is why I'm so pleased to tell you about freshness dating for Diet Pepsi. It means every single Diet Pepsi will have a date printed right on the bottom, a date that guarantees you'll be enjoying the great Diet Pepsi taste you love at the absolute peak of freshness. So, taste for yourself. Pick up a Diet Pepsi, and enjoy."

"Freshness dating from Diet Pepsi," says a voice-over. "It'll change the way you look at soft drinks."

Yes, that it will do. Henceforth, we will look at our soft drinks with suspicion.

Freshness? Who, before now, was worried about soft-drink freshness? Nobody, that's who. The whole can-dating conceit is a bizarre answer to a question not a soul has ever asked.

Marketing, of course, has a long (not necessarily proud) problem/resolution tradition of identifying a hitherto unarticulated consumer anxiety, then devising products to ameliorate it. But halitosis and static cling are one thing; creating anxiety about the product itself is quite another.

The Weatherup spots even have the look and feel of the "product contamination" genre of TV advertising. Whether it's hoax syringes in Pepsi or spiked Sudafed or tainted meat at Food Lion, the image of the concerned-but-reassuring ceo has become all too familiar. Typically such crisis-response ads are very good at generating consumer sympathy, what you might call the Tylenol Effect, so no doubt PepsiCo noticed the positive viewer response to Weatherup during the syringe fiasco. Could it be that the company is expressly mimicking the tone and imagery of product crisis, intentionally manufacturing consumer doubt in order to have Craig "Stormy" Weatherup soothe and reassure us?

Could anybody be that cynical? Could anybody be that stupid?

Let's examine all the things that can go right with this campaign, and all the things can go wrong.

Right: 1) Consumers temporarily intrigued by the previously irrelevant notion of soft-drink freshness will begin to choose Pepsi, whereupon the competition will instantaneously copycat the idea, rendering Pepsi's innovation moot.

Wrong: 1) Most consumers will dismiss it as a meaningless gimmick for creating brand differentiation. 2) Those who do notice an expired freshness date-say, on a machine-vended can-will be irritated at PepsiCo. 3) Some who tend to purchase Pepsi in bulk will stop over freshness concerns, forcing PepsiCo to win more consumer purchases to achieve the same sales volume. 4) Some who blithely guzzled high refreshment/zero-nutrition soft drinks their entire lives suddenly will consider the chemical breakdown of sweeteners and perhaps rethink their beverage habits. 5) While Pepsi talks about freshness dates, and not about youthful attitudes, hard-won brand image will begin to chemically break down.

Other than that, no problem. Introducing new Coke was a bad idea. Introducing the notion of "old" Pepsi is even worse.

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