Sprite's $20 mil ad series tackles race, class issues

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Hip-hoppers get a bad rap in Coca-Cola Co.'s latest ad series for its Sprite brand.

The $15 million to $20 million five-part series from Burrell Communications Group, Chicago, continues the lemon-lime soft drink's "Obey your thirst" theme. But the new "What are you thinkin'?" spots confront issues of race and class tensions more directly than the fantasy-oriented "Voltron" and karate-laden "Five Deadly Women" campaigns, which tip-toed around diversity issues.

The new campaign broke May 29 and will run on cable and syndicated programming on the MTV, BET and WB networks through August.

"We wanted to revitalize the brand by doing something unique in a real-life perspective, in the sense that we can tap into something that people have experienced," said Yolanda Ball, associate brand manager, Sprite.


The commercials star hip-hop artists Beanie Sigel of Rock-a-Fella Records, Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch of Rawkus Records and recording artist Lord Finesse. The series' action is set in a high-end jewelry store where the entertainers come to shop. As the rappers enter the store -- sporting baggy jeans, backward-turned baseball caps and cool attitudes -- the audience hears their thoughts, as well as those of the store personnel and other patrons. Here's where the race, class and generational stereotypes get played out.

"Because of the way they are dressed, everybody gets uncomfortable," said Sharon Kimbrough, Burrell's VP-director broadcast production services, adding that rappers define cool for teens who emulate their style."That was our point. We wanted to do something reality-based but address [the fact] that rappers are business people who have money and spend money."

In the first spot, Mos Def enters the store with his girlfriend. A white sales clerk muses that the pair looks suspicious, while a black security guard thinks this must be a scam. We hear the rapper thinking he believes people are eyeing him suspiciously and he just needs to obey his thirst and stay true to himself.

The fact that he is dressed very casually in a conservative environment represents a new paradigm for what an affluent person looks like, said Ms. Ball.

In the second spot, rapper Beanie Sigel arrives in the store, and the misperceptions escalate. The artist, who just wants to get his watch fixed, receives frightened stares from an older black woman who fears he will steal her purse. In another segment, a third rapper, Pharoahe Monch, comes to pick up his girlfriend, an employee at the jewelry store, and is scrutinized by patrol officers who suspect he's the getaway car driver for a planned robbery. In the fourth spot, rapper Lord Finesse enters the store carrying a large bag. A worried store clerk presses a panic button, and police in riot gear show up.


"This campaign taps into being true to yourself and not changing yourself when you go into different environments," Ms. Ball said. She insisted they weren't tapping into racial and class stereotypes, saying, "We pride ourselves in showcasing artists in positive ways." She acknowledged that older people don't understand hip-hop culture. "All they recognize is that it's different from how they were as teens."

The final spot will have a surprise ending that, according to Ms. Ball, "has nothing to do with what people are thinking but has more to do with how hip-hop is merging cultures and crossing boundaries."

The first spot includes a clue to the ending, added a spokeswoman. "After you see the fifth spot, you'll want to see the first spot again.

Coca-Cola's Sprite brand has struggled this year, particularly in the convenience stores frequented by its target customers -- urban teens and African-Americans. Sprite was the only top 10 brand in the convenience store channel to show negative volume growth, according to Beverage Digest. In the mass merchant channel, the brand's volume from Jan. 1 through April 23 was down by 1.2%, according to Information Resources Inc. Analysts cite a number of factors for the decrease, from higher retail prices to the company's continuing management shifts.

But the brand is counting on its teen appeal, particularly among hip-hop fans, to build momentum.


"Ten years ago, Sprite was operating in the lemon-lime [niche]," said a spokeswoman. "Now we're one of the top five soft-drink brands in the country. Sprite commercials were listed as one of the top three real elements of hip-hop by Blaze magazine. That's a real validation that we're doing it right."

"You will see us also link with edgy and relevant properties that make sense for the brand," Ms. Ball said.

The company is currently running a promotion with Polo Jeans and will continue its ties to the NBA with a summer camp promotion and other grass-roots programs. The company spent $19.7 million in 1999 to advertise Sprite and Diet Sprite, according to Competitive Media Reporting.

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