Celebrities and advertisements have always had a cozy relationship. But this relationship has not always yielded the needed results. Many is the occasion when a celebrity has actually overshadowed the brand they are supposed to be endorsing – with the product becoming a prop and the big name becoming the star. There have also been cases of brands simply not being able to make the most of a very popular celebrity (remember Amitabh Bachchan’s We Indians ad for LG in the nineties which very few understood). However, one case where a big name and a big brand hit it off brilliantly was the 1993 Pepsi ad featuring Aamir Khan, and two young ladies, both of whom would go on to become Bollywood stars (although no one knew it then).
Trying to be the right choice in a new India
It was 1993 and the Indian economy was two years into liberalisation. Cable television had entered our lives, thanks to the Gulf War in 1990, and then had decided to stay put. People had more channels to surf than ever before. There was also a greater stress on entertainment in the electronic media, which in the past had tended (being state owned) to focus on state and political issues. With more brands being available in the market, there was a section of Indian consumers (mostly the younger ones) that was suddenly becoming very brand-savvy. The face of Indian entertainment was also changing with the era of the largely action driven eighties fading away.
The Cola wars had not yet really arrived in India, at least not the Coke vs Pepsi type. Pepsi had come to India in the early 1990s but Coca-Cola had not come to India yet. Pepsi too was in India under the brand name Lehar Pepsi, and was tussling with Parle’s Thums Up and Pure Drink’s Campa for India’s Cola market. Pepsi’s initial ad campaigns in India were a spin off of its “You got the right one baby, uh huh” campaign in the US and Canada, featuring legendary singer Ray Charles.
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A guy, two girls and a Pepsi
The ad which was less than a minute long began with Aamir Khan in his apartment, playing chess with himself. The doorbell rings, and on his doorstep is a beautiful girl (Mahima Chaudhry, then known as Ritu Chaudhry – her name would change when she appeared in Pardes) who introduces herself as his new neighbour. And then asks for a Pepsi.
A delighted Khan says “One minute” and goes rushing inside the apartment, only to discover that all his Pepsi bottles are actually empty. He asks his “new neighbour” if she could try something else, but she insists on a Pepsi. Khan promptly springs into action, jumps out of the back window of his apartment, runs through the rain and traffic and slides under the closing shutters of a nearby store selling Pepsi, When he gets back to the window, he realises that he has locked himself out. Of course, he has to break his way in, and the noise alerts the girl, who asks him if he is okay. A soaked, battered Khan smiles and hands her a bottle of Pepsi, saying “Your Pepsi”.
At this the doorbell rings again, and the girl says “that must be Sanju.” Khan’s face drops, assuming this Sanju is some male companion, but then another stunningly beautiful girl walks in and says “Hi, I am Sanjana.” And then asks the magic question: “Got a Pepsi?” A stunned Khan nods and says “One minute!,” perhaps already seeing another manic dash, as the ad ends.
Every young man’s “dream sequence”
The ad was pretty much most young guys’ fantasy come true. Imagine you are in your early twenties and you live alone (so alone that you are playing chess with yourself) in your fancy apartment. It is dark outside. The doorbell rings. You open the door and standing in the doorway is a beautiful young girl of about your age. She introduces herself as your new neighbour. And guess what she asks: “Got a Pepsi?”
How often does that happen? We mean, even in today’s day and age, let alone more than two decades ago, which woman walks into a stranger’s apartment and asks for a Pepsi? And even in the extremely rare scenario that she does, you are unlikely to risk life and limb (and break windows, as going through the front door does not seem an option) to get her a bottle of soft drink, no matter how beautiful she is.
Selling a dream
Pepsi built an entire ad based on this extremely unrealistic situation. And it worked. Probably because Pepsi was not trying to relate to the user but was instead trying to sell them a dream. A fantasy in which the centre stage was taken by Pepsi, even though it had three very good looking people in the ad. Pepsi never really leaves the spotlight – a feat that many brands cannot manage even to this day when there are celebrities involved. Pepsi was able to keep its product in sharp focus because it was the thing everyone wanted right throughout the ad – the neighbour wanted a Pepsi, the guy went crazy trying to get a Pepsi, and then another girl turned up wanting a Pepsi.
All this was topped by good old if subtle, sexual appeal – there are three very good looking people in the ad – celebrity endorsement (via Aamir Khan), and a mix of hectic and cheeky humour, which gave it lots of entertainment value, making people want to see it again and again. But what made the ad really special was the way in which the ad celebrated Pepsi rather than the celebrities chasing it. And it did so without highlighting any particular feature of the product – it did not talk of the taste of Pepsi, or even that it was refreshing it was. It just made Pepsi the thing everyone – especially beautiful people – wanted.
Most important of all, it wove all this into a story. The ad had a clear plot line, stars and entertainment aplenty even though it lasted less than a minute. At a time when most advertisements just seemed to be about showing a slice of life or an incident or maybe even sending a very basic message, the Pepsi ad actually told you a structured story. It had a clear narrative and never went into hard sell mode.
If you wanted to be successful in love, perhaps having a Pepsi at your side helped. Of course, it was total fantasy. But it was a fantasy that a lot of people wanted to believe in, and even in that scenario, the message was loud and clear – having Pepsi meant success.
Still the right choice, baby
Almost twenty six years after it first aired, the ad still works. This is not just a tribute to the production values of the ad and the performances of those involved in it, but its very core concept – how a product makes you stand out from a crowd – the “cool” factor. It also positioned Pepsi as not only as something desirable but also made it the drink of the young and beautiful.
You can see a lot of brands still using the same core concepts as the Pepsi ad. In that regard, the ad was perhaps ahead of its time – showing girls walking up and asking a guy who was living in his own apartment for a Pepsi was sort of radical back then. In fact, the ad would fit in even better today than it did at that time.
Some might call it unreal, others superficial, but it did make Pepsi the right choice for many. Which is what ads are supposed to do, aren’t they?
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Ad-vantages: Key takeaways
Have celebs, but celebrate the product
Unlike many brands that stumbled while using celebrities, Pepsi did not let any of the stars overwhelm the product. There were stars, yes, but they all wanted a Pepsi!
Fantasy can sell
As we pointed out, the scenario shown by the ad was not a very realistic one. But it was aspirational for many. Which is why it struck a chord. Reality is unlikely to have had the same effect.
Tell a story
The ad was not a series of incidents but a complete story in itself. And that gave it entertainment value as well. People love watching a story.
Humour always helps
From Aamir’s wry “one minute” to his reckless dash for a Pepsi, the ad gave viewers reason to smile time and again. Nothing works better.
Believe Ad or Not: Some Ad-dictional Facts
Ash got nerves!
Aishwarya Rai, who was not a star yet, was believed to be extremely nervous even though she had just one scene and one line to say. She needed 21 takes to complete the ad
A Fox-y copy
Although very well executed, the ad was not original. It is a copy of a Michael J Fox US ad for Diet Pepsi in 1987
Brand ambassadors who went to the Dark (Coke) side
Both Aamir Khan and Aishwarya Rai actually ended up endorsing Coca Cola later. In fact, they even appeared in a Coca Cola ad together. And that is why celeb ads should never focus too much on the celebs themselves.
Akriti Rana and Nimish Dubey write on technology and communication, and have worked in both fields. They have been associated with a regular section on advertising at TechPP.com.
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