Pepsi's new summer film from China is a nostalgic, sweeping look back at the brand's history there. Year by year, it traces just how much things have changed in China since Pepsi arrived in the early 1980s, when skyscrapers were still in the future, bicycles filled the streets and the country was just beginning to open up to foreign influences and brands.
It's a utterly different approach from Pepsi's Kendall Jenner ad from a month back, which the brand pulled after criticism. That one focused on a celeb; this one celebrates ordinary people and their experiences. Instead of trying to concoct a trendy, of-the-moment millennial-friendly message (and striking out), the Chinese ad resonates across generations. The China spot was in the works long before the Jenner ad came out. The agency that worked on the campaign, local independent shop Civilization, says it took three months to plan and used a cast and crew of hundreds.
The film starts out in the present day, with a pop star stage-diving at a rock concert, then rewinds back to 1981, the year Pepsi debuted in China. Scenes in the movie were inspired by real people's memories. One person recalled spending a month's salary at KFC, another early entrant to China. Another remembered playing kick-the-can because he couldn't afford a soccer ball. It's a reminder of how fast China's economy grew after it opened up to the world, how fast the country urbanized and how much more prosperous people are now.
There are also references to big events, like a major earthquake in China's Sichuan province in 2008. The ad seems to try to strike as many chords as possible -- there are references to first kisses and weddings, reality TV and indie rock, as well as to retro tech gadgets like cassette tapes and pagers, which seem quaint in smartphone-obsessed China.
The ad is part of Pepsi's "Live for Now" campaign, so the looking-back approach seems unusual. The intent seems to be to show what "now" was like for a few generations that grew up with Pepsi. Andrew Lok, founder of Civilization and the ad's director, declined to compare the spot to Pepsi's work from other markets; he says the goal here was to make people remember Pepsi's iconic status.
"Sometimes we lose sight of what a brand is about, the heritage, what the brand has gone through with consumers and this is particularly true in China," said Lok, who also composed the catchy melody in the ad's song. "When China was opening up, Western brands were a big deal, and to have a Pepsi, to drink it and be seen with it, were signs of progress."
The ad was released on May 4, which is National Youth Day in China, and the agency says it has had about 20 million views online.
Lok's agency, with a staff of 74, has done several other blast-of-the-past campaigns with Pepsi. For Chinese New Year this year, it reunited the cast of a popular decade-old Chinese TV show called "Home With Kids," which was sort of a local "Growing Pains" or "Family Ties." In 2016, it told the life story of a performer who played a monkey king in an '80s TV show based on a Chinese classic tale, "Journey to the West."