PEPSI HAS 'JOY' BUT NO STRATEGY; LITE HAS 'TASTE' BUT LITTLE CHARM

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Two struggling beverages, two important new campaigns, two unsatisfactory outcomes.

Too, too, too bad. Two-, two-, two-and-a-half stars each.

Miller Lite, via Fallon McElligott, Minneapolis, desperately looks to the distant past to redeem its sins of the more recent one. The result is a campaign with a very sound strategy and uneven -- no, make that mostly pitiful -- execution.

Pepsi-Cola, meanwhile, having courted disaster by narrowing its audience to 14-year-old boys, has decided to broaden its appeal. The upshot is an engaging, mostly well-executed campaign with little evidence of any strategy whatsoever. The new tagline from BBDO Worldwide, New York, is "The joy of cola." Which particular cola (apparently there are several on the market) they don't trouble themselves to say.

The best thing about the restaged Pepsi brand is the jingle. Here, I'll sing it for you: "Bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah, bah. Pep-siii co-laaaa." That may not do it justice, but it's a real toe-tapper, which gets to the best of the new commercials. It depicts a whole city keeping time to the beat -- including billiard balls, golf balls and other usually inanimate objects.

The other spots focus on Hallie Eisenberg, the chubby little girl who lip-synced Joe Pesci's voice last year to generally favorable notices, and who now assumes the personalities, variously, of Aretha Franklin, Marlon Brando (as Don Corleone) and R&B singer Isaac Hayes as an anonymous smooth-FM DJ.

Although the dubbing is distractingly out of sync (particularly in a pizzeria-set spot, when restaurant ambience jarringly disappears and "Godfather"-esque music suddenly comes up) the child is cherubic and adorable. She will appeal particularly to all the over 30-year-olds -- hell, to all of the over 15-year-olds -- excluded by Generation Next.

But she had better appeal an awful lot, because these ads don't tell us much about Pepsi. Apart from asserting that cola is joyful -- which, demonstrably, it is not -- it has nothing to say about Pepsi itself. Broadening the message is all well and good. Making it generic is not.

Now, let's say you were a beer drinker befuddled by the weird postmodern goofiness of the late, unlamented "Dick" campaign for Miller Lite.

Or let's say you were an obsessive trade-newspaper editor in chief on a maniacal, all-consuming crusade to have Dick replaced with product-focused advertising, along the lines of the classic "Tastes great/Less filling" ads of yore.

Or let's say you were either Backer or Spielvogel.

You'd have to be struck with the all-new, all-old Lite campaign. The new work is not just a (pale) restaging of the old, tried-and-true strategy, it is a total repudiation of the self-indulgent absurdity of the Dick campaign. Fallon, which responded to Dick criticism by dismissing naysayers as tired throwbacks to the '50s, has -- apparently on pain of dismissal by the client -- sought desperate refuge in the '70s.

Ironic, huh?

But probably effective. Eventually.

This campaign not only embraces the strategy that built Lite into a colossus; it upgrades it. For instance, it too employs retired athletes to debate the relative merits of the brand benefits, but instead of quibbling over taste or calories, now they argue the relative advantages of smoothness and flavor. (In 1999, Lite-ness requires no explanation.)

Thus is a separate pool of spots free to dwell on gorgeous-looking beer pours into a pilsner glass. This is really an old gambit, seldom seen nowadays, and the beer does indeed look delicious (which, of course, in reality, it isn't, despite the claimed "Great taste of a true pilsner beer.") But as fetching as the pours are, that's how insipid the voice-overs are. Meant to be witty ("Thirty-two-point-five degrees, meet 98.6. Mr. Pilsner, you are indeed brewed to be smooth"), they are merely annoying.

Unfortunately, the athlete spots don't work, either. Only one captures the humor and charm of the old Backer & Spielvogel work. It features retired relief pitchers Lee Smith and Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams in a bar playing darts. Williams' darts, as per his erratic reputation, land all over the place. Like the ceiling fan.

It's absolutely wonderful. The other spots, however, are absolutely terrible, as if they were written, shot and cut in about 15 minutes by an agency desperate to give the client exactly what he wants six working days before he wants it.

Fallon has a long, strong track record of being funny. (By the end of the Dick campaign, when it was too late, the spots were hilarious.) And the agency, given the opportunity, will probably find its groove. But it has already discovered that the easygoing humor of the Lite classics is not easily achieved.

They'll surely need better scripts. The one with auto racers Bobby Rahal and Don Prudhomme is tortured and unfunny. The one with swimsuit model Rebecca Romijn Stamos and Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly is downright embarrassing. And they'd better budget more time for the shoots. Athletes aren't actors; they require gentle, nudging direction and many takes to get these things right.

Under pressure to please the client, Fallon appears to have lacked sufficient patience. It had better hope that the client, under pressure to please

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