Pepsi Advertising, Viewed From the Client Perspective

Alan Pottasch Talks About BBDO, Campaigns and the Taste Challenge

Published on .

Among current custodians of the "Pepsi Generation" tradition, few who were present at the creation have remained with it longer than Alan Pottasch. He began his career as a TV director in Dallas, where he created a panel show called "Personality Puzzle."

When ABC picked it up as a network vehicle for Robert Alda, father of Alan Alda, Mr. Pottasch accompanied his creation to New York, where it debuted in March, 1953 -- then folded 13 weeks later.

In 1958, Pepsi-Cola Co. arranged for him to be hired by its ad agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt, to work on the international side of the account. To Mr. Pottasch, it seemed like "a convenient way to go around the world at someone else's expense." Two years later PepsiCo Chairman-to-be Donald Kendall brought him over to Pepsi just before replacing K&E with BBDO.

Mr. Pottasch retired from Pepsi as senior VP-worldwide creative in 1991. He later rejoined PepsiCo as creative consultant, his current position.

The interview with Mr. Pottasch was conducted by John McDonough at Pepsi-Cola Co. headquarters in Somers, N.Y.

Advertising Age: The Pepsi/BBDO relationship spans more than a third of Pepsi's entire history. On the whole, where has the balance of power been? Is Pepsi a strong client, specific in what it wants from its agency? Or does it give great latitude?

Alan Pottasch: It goes back and forth over time. If you look at some of the big moments of change, you'll find either the client or the agency might have influenced it. But I think in terms of imagery, if a client can be 50-50 in the number of times it's instrumental with change, I think that's a lot. Because usually agencies tend to lead the way.

There were certain key things the agency was instrumental in initiating. For example, in the early '60s, Tom Dillon, CEO of BBDO, wrote a white paper on Pepsi. He talked about the fact that a soft drink was like a "necktie product" -- meaning that if you look at a man and see what kind of tie he's wearing, you have some sense of whether he's conservative or outgoing. He thought that the soft drink a man drank was an indicator of his personality and style.

So he came up with the notion that we ought to talk more about the consumer and less about the product. His idea was that in talking about the product, there was little we could say to differentiate it from the other guy. So why not develop a personality about the style of person that would choose Pepsi? This led to "Now It's Pepsi, for Those Who Think Young," which in turn led to "The Pepsi Generation."

Ad Age: There's one exception to being copied; that's the taste-test campaign, "The Pepsi Challenge." Coke couldn't duplicate that. Why doesn't Pepsi do more of that?

Mr. Pottasch: That was a unique moment. Generally speaking, when marketing people asked customers what they wanted in a soft drink, the answer was "good taste" or "refreshment."

Ad Age: What did that mean?

Mr. Pottasch: It meant they didn't know what else to say. The quickest way to get the researchers off their back was to say "good taste" or "refreshment." When those numbers came back, the researchers invariably said, "Why aren't we talking more about taste?" The ad people felt taste is too subjective an issue. You can't simply tell people that your taste is better. People make up their own minds about that.

So the taste challenge became a way to talk about taste objectively. We put numbers behind the claim. And it worked, because these were hard facts.

Ad Age: And you haven't returned to it in 20 years.

Mr. Pottasch: We had [the taste test] from '75 to about '84. It went from city to city, worldwide. But it was never a totally universal campaign. There was always an umbrella of "Pepsi Generation" running alongside it. We treated it more as a promotion. We went into a territory and would run it for a year or two. Remember, in 1984 we started saying "Pepsi, the Choice of a New Generation." It was the addition of the word choice that reminded people of the [taste] challenge. So we kept it alive in that way. But there is a limit to how many times you can refresh an idea like that.

Ad Age: If you were going to characterize BBDO, would you say its strength was marketing strategy or creative product?

Mr. Pottasch: I could say both, but truly, BBDO excels at creativity and execution. Pepsi has an army of marketing strategists and therefore has less need for that. The selection of an agency should depend on where an advertiser is most needy. Know your shortcomings and seek an agency to complement your weaknesses with strength. BBDO does that in spades.

Ad Age: Pepsi has emphasized youth in its advertising. Does this mean that the ads really can't influence the beverage choice of a person over 25 or 30?

Mr. Pottasch: No, not at all. First, in a free choice market, you go down the supermarket shelves, both products are priced equally and the hand can reach out left or right. I think there are many who reach for Pepsi because they feel emotionally involved with it and like the advertising. I think you can influence choice through ads at any age.

Ad Age: But your advertising targets young people presumably because they're at an age where they're making decisions about brand loyalties. And many of these decisions will stay with them for life.

Mr. Pottasch: That's for sure. Those are formative years for tastes and desires. And targeting those people at that time has been our strategyover the years.

Ad Age: You've used many celebrities in your advertising. What do you look for?

Mr. Pottasch: In one respect, we're unique in that we do not necessarily want the most popular person at the moment. We try to use people who will make the commercials better. Example: In one of our most famous commercials, "Apartment 10-G," Michael J. Fox runs across the street in the rain to get a Diet Pepsi for the girl next door. He was perfect for the role. We did not say "Let's create a spot for Michael J. Fox, who's hot right now." The script was written before we thought about casting. We realized we had a strong idea, so we wanted the strongest player.

In 1984, when we used Michael Jackson, he was among the most popular entertainers in the world. It was because we had a need to signal that we were dealing with a new generation, and the slogan was key: "The Choice of a New Generation." We had to do something that signaled new, a break with the past. And nothing signals new more strongly than music, because nothing changes as rapidly as music styles.

Ad Age: Also, Mr. Jackson was such a hermit; you were surely aware of the publicity value and the fact the spot would get exposure on news and personality shows.

Mr. Pottasch: You're right. We calculated we got $20 million worth of free media before [ads] went on the air. Of course, there was also the hair-burning incident, and that spiked [the publicity] even more.

Ad Age: Then came the allegations of pedophilia. What was Pepsi's relationship with Michael Jackson then?

Mr. Pottasch: We were sponsoring [Mr.] Jackson on an international tour. It was the end of the tour that the negative PR broke, and since the tour was over, we were no longer involved.

Ad Age: What is your obligation, as a creative wise man, to know about what's current in a culture of 16-year-olds? Is it possible for someone of your generation to have, or want, a contemporary sensibility today?

Mr. Pottasch: I mostly leave it to the younger people. I see my role now to make sure we don't turn off everybody else in the process. I think there are a lot of things you can do to appeal directly to young people that might not be appropriate for the rest of Pepsi drinkers. For all the emphasis on the new generations over the years, we serve a very broad market. I feel that my job is to stay abreast as much as I reasonably can, and I usually try to do that by having a child of the appropriate age nearby, and I have many of those. (Mr. Pottasch has four offspring ranging in age from 9 to 44.)

But that's not the total answer. Frankly, I've never been a real authority on music. I've always relied on other people who knew more about it. I just have to be careful on whom I rely.

Ad Age: Then you don't spend an hour a day watching MTV?

Mr. Pottasch: Maybe a half hour every two weeks, just to get the feeling of what's going on.

Ad Age: How long does a generation last before Pepsi is on to the next?

Mr. Pottasch: Five years, three months and two days. That's it.

Ad Age: Spoken like an expert!

Mr. Pottasch: There is no timetable, of course. It's not easy to recognize when change comes. First, I think there's a big difference between being on the cutting edge and being on the crest of a wave. The difference is when you get too far out on the cutting edge, which is farther out than the crest point, you risk outrunning your market. The cutting edge says you're going to identify what is coming as opposed to what is here. And that's a big difference in terms of risk. I think in some things we've done recently, we've been a little too cutting edge for the broad audience we actually serve. That can happen. But again, no risk, no reward.

But if your look at the total history of the "Pepsi Generation" from 1960 to today, I think more often than not we've been on the crest of what's happening and not out on the edge. One thing about the franchise system is that you have bottlers out there who can send a signal to you. They are the ones with salesmen in the marketplace. In the past, they've kept us from making mistakes by reacting strongly against something we may have thought was right. That's the yin and the yang of our business.

Ad Age: You say you're not an expert on music. Well, who is? Who over the age of 20 knows what the 10 most popular songs or artists are now? Do you find the multiplicity of market segments confusing?

Mr. Pottasch: Over the years I've had people within the advertising department who could tell me what the biggest songs are. There's always someone. But, you're right; they're tougher to find. Since that area changes so fast and since there is such segmentation in tastes, it's becoming a kind of specialty.

Ad Age: What do you find characteristic about "Generation Next"?

Mr. Pottasch: To the extent that it's possible to characterize a whole generation -- and how can you? -- it does seem to me that one of the things different about this new generation is the fact they are not as separated from their parents as the previous generation was. The generation gap has very much narrowed, and these kids appreciate a lot more of what they've got and are a lot more optimistic about their future.

Ad Age: Can you cite two or three management decisions in your 38 years at Pepsi that materially altered the future of the company.

Mr. Pottasch: I've given that some thought. First, prior to my being here, there's one that's very obvious. That was the decision to go to a value position -- "Twice as Much for a Nickel, too." You can't talk about major events in this company's history without considering that.

I think the next big thing was just as I joined: the decision to go to lower calories. This was long before the invention of diet drinks. It was in 1955 that Pepsi came up with "lower calories, less filling ... the modern trend toward lighter food and drink."

Coming out of the Depression, you can see what happened. "Twice as Much for a Nickel" was a poignant statement. People were very conscious of how much a dollar would buy. But as they became more affluent, they had enough to eat, and they swung the other way: don't eat too much. Putting that notion into your commercials, which was incidentally a K&E effort, was on the mark and pre-announced the arrival of the diet category.

Ad Age: You went into advertising as an account executive. Was it your ambition to get into management?

Mr. Pottasch: Never. I had been a TV director before advertising, so my focus was really always on the creative side, on making the advertising. The thing that distinguished me from everybody else among the account people was my lack of ambition. Looking back, I think my "lack of ambition" has served me very well.
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