Mr. Sann spoke with John McDonough in his BBDO office overlooking 52nd St. in New York.
Advertising Age: The most engaging thing about Pepsi's more recent work is the way it not only uses contemporary trends but comments on them.
Mr. Sann: Absolutely. Did you see our "Woodstock" commercial? It was Woodstock II. The premise was that older people from the '60s were coming back to Woodstock. But now there's valet parking and you see guys on cell phones talking to their brokers.
Ad Age: Satire!
Mr. Sann: Right. The earlier commercials didn't have that edge. I came into Pepsi about the time of "Choice of a New Generation" in the mid-'80s. Before that Pepsi was showing life styles in little vignettes. We felt it was time to make a break and search for other ways to tell the story.
Instead of telling stories by doing just snapshots and montages, we moved to the idea of a single clear story line, like "Spaceship" or "Sound Truck" from the first or "Archaeologist" in the second year.
Ad Age: Talk about Steven Spielberg. What's his impact been?
Mr. Sann: Most advertising feeds off popular culture, and film techniques are a critical part of the process. Those early spots in the "Choice of a New Generation" series did have a very Spielberg-like look because those were the films that were dominating at the time. But if you look at the reel as it progresses from there, you'll see remarkable changes in the speed of the imagery in, say, 1984 compared to, say, 1993. There's probably twice as much information in the later spots because of the effect of MTV video. The sheer process of zapping through channels affects young people's ability to take in more in less time.
Continuity used to be, you'd have to show somebody putting down a glass, taking their hand away from the glass, moving their hand here and so on. Now you can do it all in two shots, and you don't have to explain the in-between qualities. It's a leap from Spielberg to today.
Ad Age: You're talking about mainstream film grammar. Do you think the feature picture is what has acclimated the eye and the mind to the shorthand of modern cutting and montage, from Welles to Frankenheimer to today?
Mr. Sann: I think so. But I also think mainstream filmmaking is still pretty much where it's been for the last decade or so. The less-mainstream stuff is what really pushed the technique: music videos and things like that. Also, the fact that computers have replaced the Movieola in editing has changed the imagery of both films and commericals. Now directors have so many more options they can try. It used to be you'd go through dailies and think of some changes. But by the time you had the editor find the other shots, you'd forget why you asked him to do it. You had to send stuff out to optical houses, and changes were very expensive.
Now you can do cuts and mess around with the film, all in one place. The enormous amount of energy that went into the sheer mechanics of it can now be put into actually thinking through the film. What you thought and what went on the film was sometimes a century apart because of all the mechanics. Now it's really much closer.
Ad Age: Computers have opened up vast possibilities for composites, too, without laboring over traveling mattes. Fred Astaire and James Cagney are commercial stars.
Mr. Sann: There was one commercial we did with Shaquille O'Neal. He's in a game and wants a Pepsi. So he runs out of the game and into the TV booth, and ends up in monitors that show him in "I Love Lucy" and "The Honeymooners." He finally grabs a Pepsi out of a Pepsi commercial, drinks it and goes back to the game.
Ad Age: Very postmodern, grabbing a Pepsi out of a commercial within a commercial. We hear that word [postmodern] a lot to describe the notion in which the medium's comments on itself are as important as its comments on the product. Is that the way you see it?
Mr. Sann: To some extent, yes. But I think young people are very conscious of being marketed to, and they have a keen awareness of what the images mean on several levels. They know what they mean on their face, but they also understand the codes behind them. So what we try to do is offer a surprise.
We did a commercial in the U.S. in response to rising sales of private label colas during a period of economic downturn. We made it look like "Field of Dreams," and for the first 25 or 30 seconds you won't think it's going anywhere but to a warm Hallmark moment. When the twist finally comes, it's totally unexpected and subverts the whole first half of the commercial and everything it's based on. In the buildup, we used all the imagery people associate with schmaltz and tugging at the heartstrings, all in exactly the right places. You lead the audience to expect something familiar, then give them something else. The commercial not only commented on the product, it commented on the hidden agenda by which the medium manipulates emotions. Kids know this, and they don't like to be spoken to by an advertiser as if they don't. So you have to let the viewer in on it. It takes a lot of courage to do that kind of advertising that subverts so much of its own mythology. But young people are onto it, and you can't pretend they're not.
Ad Age: A few fearless pioneers did it. Stan Freberg, the Fleischers and Chuck Jones in cartoons. And Bob Hope films of the '40s and '50s are full of incredibly daring and hip media self-references.
Mr. Sann: Yes, but there's a line between reality and illusion, and it has to be crossed carefully. Believe me, I've learned from mistakes. We did a commercial about a bunch of advertising guys trying to come up with a slogan for Pepsi. The inspiration was the movie "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," where Cary Grant is trying to come up with a line for a ham. It sounded sort of clever to us, but it was uninteresting to consumers. The advertising self-references were so inside. It was tough to find out nobody was interested in my business.
Ad Age: Retro advertising, I suppose, is part of the same notion of casting a skeptical eye on illusion -- like a kid looking at Santa Claus after he's figured it out. In the context of Pepsi, what do Lucille Ball and Ed Norton say to Generation Next?
Mr. Sann: Not a whole lot, in some cases. But some of the images in the Shaquille spot reflect some of that "Nick at Nite" culture, which is contemporary in a very specific way. But in general you have to pick nostalgia very carefully, especially for Pepsi, which has been on the edge of what's current. Coke is more tied to the past and the notion of being an institution. Nostalgia is not part of the Pepsi culture.
So I think Jimmy Cagney [whose image was in a contemporary Coke commercial], much as I love him, would be pretty irrelevant to our audience on his merits alone. On the other hand, if you took a piece of music like Jimmy Durante singing "Young at Heart" and put it on some incredible piece of activity in a Mountain Dew commercial, the contrast could work.
Ad Age: Woody Allen is a master at that. And how many movies and commercials have used Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing"? What is "Generation Next," anyway?
Mr. Sann: The Pepsi Generation has been an on-going thing for 30 years. But the content has changed with each generation.
Ad Age: And what is characteristic of this one, in Pepsi's view?
Mr. Sann: Gen X was cynicism and a sense that nothing much is going to change, a vague sense of no job out there, that I'm not going to do as well as my parents did. It's really changed with the second baby boom. They're very optimistic and positive. Even the relationships between parents and kids are very tight. They share a lot of the same values and interests. The difference is, the new generation has a sense of optimism and community which I don't think the baby boomers had. Also a sense of tolerance. This came out of an enormous amount of research -- the notion that people can be what they want to be and I'm not going to be down on them. Different is not bad, which is to me an incredible bit of progress, if it's really true.