Director Recalls Michael Jackson's Contribution to Advertising

Bob Giraldi Worked With Pop Superstar on Landmark Pepsi Ads in 1980s

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I crossed paths with Michael Jackson at an important time in his career, and at an important time in mine.

Alfonso Ribeiro (left) and Michael Jackson in the 'street' scene of the classic 1984 Pepsi ad.
Alfonso Ribeiro (left) and Michael Jackson in the 'street' scene of the classic 1984 Pepsi ad.
"Beat It," which climbed to the top of record charts in 1983 -- and later become one of the best-selling singles of all time -- was the very first music video I ever directed. A couple of months later, Paul McCartney asked me to direct the video for "Say Say Say," the song he co-wrote with Michael. When Pepsi's ad agency BBDO hired me to shoot "The Pepsi Generation" campaign, it marked my third encounter with the rising pop star.

Watershed moment for advertising
I still remember vividly being at a party to celebrate the announcement of Pepsi and BBDO forging a landmark endorsement relationship with Michael and his brothers, the Jackson Five. It was a nighttime event, and Michael appeared wearing dark sunglasses (like he often did throughout his life) -- it was quite jarring to everyone at the time. I've always thought it was Michael's way of maintaining some distance, like he was saying "I might be ready to sign the biggest contract ever with an advertiser, but I'm not ready to let you look me in the eye just yet."

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Michael Jackson's Pepsi commercial shoot is unforgettable, and with good reason. It was the first product endorsement by a superstar of his magnitude in history. People remember it mainly for the last day of the shoot, because, it was -- as the late Phil Dusenberry indicated in the title of his book -- the day we set his hair on fire. But in actuality, the campaign was shot in a span of three days.

The first was devoted to what we called the "Street" spot. Michael and his brothers danced through the streets to rock-and-roll beats and lyrics crafted by BBDO to talk about the soda. The scene is etched in our memories: a group of kids are led by a marvelous young dancer, Alfonso Ribeiro, as he imitates the moonwalk of his idol only to bump into the real Michael Jackson. Michael made it magical.

The infamous incident
On day two, we headed to downtown Los Angeles to an auditorium to film the second spot, "Concert." We were prepping for the last take, in which we planned for big special effects. Suddenly, came screaming from backstage: The King of Pop had accidently dropped his sequined white glove into a sea of urine while on a toilet break. His brothers and I ran to the bathroom and Michael howled for one of us "to get it out of the bowl!!" We did. One crisis averted. Until ...

We're rolling tape again, and I was backstage standing amid nervous clients. Michael stands at the top of the steps, the explosion behind him grand and loud, the crowd cheering. As I scanned all five monitors, something seemed out of whack. I leaned into my producer, Antony Payne, and whispered: "He's out of sync ... Michael's never out of sync." The next thing we know, the star is struggling to rip off his fabled red jacket, thinking it was the jacket on fire, not his hair—and then pandemonium. The audience is in shock, some running to the stage, some trying to get out. Everyone comes forth from backstage rushing around him, comforting him. Emotions were high.

Through it all, Michael was brave. As he lay badly burned on a stretcher being carried out to the ambulance, he raised a shaky arm. Holding the dirty white glove, he wiggled it a bit, as if to signal to the world that everything was going to be all right -- and let his fans know he'll be back. I wish that was the case now.

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Bob Giraldi is also known for a series of commercials for Miller Brewing Co. and directing music videos for musicians such as Lionel Richie, Pat Benatar and Will Smith. He is director at GiraldiMedia, a New York-based media company.

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