Crying Foul On Pepsi's Social Media Cop-Out


In adolescence many of us discovered that you can get "cool" points by not doing what other people are doing, not going where other people are going -- i.e., rebellion. Then, sometime later, we discovered that we were bored and lonely: being cool wasn't particularly glamorous when it was just you there underneath the bleachers. Reminiscent of this adolescent phase is Pepsi's ultra-cool snubbing of the Super Bowl on Sunday after over two decades as the event's top soft drink advertiser, leaving the field to Coca-Cola in favor of a social media, uh, thing -- the "Pepsi Refresh Project," which invites visitors to vote on proposals for non-profit charitable work to determine which ones get a piece of a $20 million grant from Pepsi.

This sounds like a very laudable project, but there are some questions that nag. First of all, why did the online effort for the Pepsi Refresh Project preclude advertising during the Super Bowl?

According to an article from Cox Newspapers, "PepsiCo insists that its retrenchment on the broadcast is not related to Coca-Cola's presence, or with the Super Bowl's value as a marketing vehicle. The company is trying to draw attention to the Pepsi Refresh Project." Huh? Wouldn't it attract more attention with a Super Bowl ad, than without?

Next question: while PepsiCo claims here the Super Bowl snub isn't related to the its "value as a marketing vehicle," there's also a USA Today article citing PepsiCo "executives saying the ad buy no longer makes sense for them when their target consumers are hanging out in digital space."

So, which is it: are you too good for school, or too cool for school?

Now, someone will probably hasten to point out that Pepsi has generated buzz simply by not advertising on the Super Bowl -- but how far can this buzz actually carry a brand? For example, do people who know that Pepsi didn't advertise on the Super Bowl also know about the online voting for charitable causes? Just how much of the story actually gets communicated via buzz? The USA Today article contained further mystifications, including a quote from one PepsiCo exec that future marketing "will be less about a moment, more about a movement." Excusing the slightly over-the-top comparison of soft drink choice to a social movement (this is after all a long-standing conceit, e.g., "the Choice of a New Generation") there are a couple problems with the distinction drawn here.

First of all, any "movement" -- be it a religious revival, a marketing campaign disguised as a charitable venture, whatever -- is composed of individual "moments." In fact, the word "moment" comes from the same Latin root as "movement" -- you can see the shared lineage in the word "momentum." Back in the day, an important development or occurrence was described as being "something of moment" not because it was transient and fleeting, but because it got things moving, provoked a reaction, made things happen, etc. And believe it or not this isn't just a linguistic quibble.

The fact is that big broadcast "moments" like the Super Bowl still matter, because they are special, unique events that draw the attention of tens of millions of people. And if a marketing campaign is indeed a "movement" composed of many "moments," that's all the more reason to exploit a really big moment like the Super Bowl to generate some momentum for the rest of the movement -- especially when you're trying to jumpstart a grassroots phenomenon through social media.

All of which leads me to conclude that the real reason Pepsi didn't advertise during the Super Bowl is because they're just too cheap -- a fine and very sensible reason, which makes a lot more sense than contradictory statements about its efficacy as a marketing vehicle.

Why, maybe they could even imply they needed to save money to pay for the grants! Cheapness posturing as charitable conscience -- a double whammy.

8 comments about "Crying Foul On Pepsi's Social Media Cop-Out".
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  1. Dave Woodall from fiorano associates, February 9, 2010 at 4:25 a.m.


    This is nothing new at all. Eight, maybe nine years ago Coke did EXACTLY the same thing. In Coke's case it was the Academy Awards, not the Super Bowl, but the result was the same: One day someone wakes up and says, "You know, I wonder what else we could do with the $3M/$5M/$10M we're gonna drop on the ___________ (fill in the blank with the name of your favorite obscenely priced special event).

    In Coke's case, they had been the Academy Awards' long-time, exclusive soft-drink sponsor and had been ratcheted-up to something like a $5M or $10M package to maintain that distinction. I guess the number finally rang someone's bell at Coke and they realized that spending $5M or $10M in one night was horrific overkill for a brand as well known as Coca-Cola. They started asking themselves the "What if" question and, while I may be mistaken, I think this might have been about the time American Idol premiered and that's where Coke re-allocated the Academy Awards obviously great success.

    And guess who took Coke's place in the Academy Awards broadcast?

    In any case, I'm sure it's not about Pepsi being "too cheap" to make the Super Bowl spend. As in Coke's case, Pepsi will spend the money, they'll just spend it in a way that makes more sense for the brand at this moment in time.

    Even at that though, I'm sure it wasn't easy for the folks at PepsiCo to forsake the biggest broadcast day of the year. Speaking of which; for a social marketing-oriented piece, the last two paragraphs of your article are pretty harsh Eric. You sound more like a pissed-off TV writer watching another advertiser shift budget to the web than a social media proponent. I mean it's nice work but maybe you should look into a reassignment so you can more effectively channel that righteous indignation.

  2. Elizabeth Rhys from KTS, February 9, 2010 at 6:29 a.m.

    I can't see why this is such a big deal. I think you just needed something to write about.

  3. Melissa Garcia from, February 9, 2010 at 9:46 a.m.

    I get so aggrivated at these stupid rants that have no merit! So what if Pepsi doesn't want to advertise in the Super Bowl big deal. What happen to freedom of choice and individuality.More and more people ARE going to the internet for info because of Tivo and DVR's . I think Pepsi was just being smart not cheap. I am now thinking to myself why is this article under Social Media & Marketing Daily as you clearly don't get Social Media at all. I usually don't comment on stuff like this but I just couldn't help myself this time. Sorry

  4. Lisa Totino from BGT Partners, February 9, 2010 at 10:02 a.m.

    I think it is great that a company is taking a huge amount of money ($20 million) and, instead of wasting it on a quick tv ad, donating it to charities that its customers decide.

  5. Dave Coll from Mediakitchen, February 9, 2010 at 10:45 a.m.

    I thought this article really made some strong points. All of these subsequent comments seem unnecessarily critical of the author's viewpoint. The main thesis here is that Pepsi has not (publicly) given a believable answer as to WHY they avoided the Superbowl.

    It is great that they are donating money to a good cause, and their social media campaign is very unique in its scale/goal, but without proper publicity it is very possible that this campaign will not have the impact that Pepsi would expect a $20MM grant to have on its image.

    The point is not that social media is ineffective, or that it is silly for Pepsi (or any company) to donate money instead of advertising during the Superbowl. The point is to question, from a marketing point of view, WHY Pepsi did this.

    The cost for an average Superbowl :30s spot this year was ~$3MM. The viewership for the Superbowl was ~106.5MM. The Pepsi Refresh Project has about 500,000 fans currently on Facebook. Now let's say that one television spot got 1% of the viewership to look further into the Pepsi Refresh Project, do you think the impact of the campaign would be lost if 1.5MM people knew Pepsi was giving $15MM (production, etc. included), as opposed to .5MM knowing Pepsi is giving $20MM? This is also assuming their commercial was only effective enough to get 1% of people to donate 5 online minutes of their time to a charity that they have to pay nothing for.

    Moving away from the author's viewpoint, I would add that while social media campaigns can be fantastic, it is very important to make sure that the ball gets rolling somehow. If Pepsi thinks standard television spots, digital advertising, and organic growth will be enough - then great - I hope they are right and that they get due credit for this unique campaign. On the other hand, it is very hard to deny the enormous amount of awareness a well executed Superbowl television spot would've generated for this campaign.

    Pepsi is clearly fond of their latest campaign, and why shouldn't they be? However, as with any fledgling idea, they need to make sure they properly nourish it as well.

  6. Juli Schatz from Image Grille, February 9, 2010 at 10:57 a.m.

    I, too completely disagree with Erik's rantings. The millions of dollars companies pay for a :30 spot on the Super Bowl is absurd and only furthers the argument that sports plays a detrimental, over-emphasized role in the way our society thinks, spends its money on, and worship its players and events such as the Super Bowl.

    Wake up and smell the coffee (or in this case -urp! - the beer), Erik -- the obscenely commercialized, overstuffed, dangerously idolized sports industry, from high school on up, is today a bane to society.

  7. Fraser E from Opinions expressed herein are solely my own, February 9, 2010 at 7:54 p.m.

    Why, the nerve! How dare Erik point out that stoking the fire of social media with TV might have actually been a productive (if unfashionable) way to achieve the goals pepsi said it had for their social media campaign!

  8. Dave Woodall from fiorano associates, February 10, 2010 at 4:04 p.m.

    @ Dave Coll from Mediakitchen,

    First of all, Pepsi is under no obligation to disclose it's advertising strategy; there could be any number of reasons why they'd rather not do so. That being said, take a look at the big picture: A) The Super Bowl's CPM is about double that of Broadcast Network Prime...with your 3MM bucks achieving an astounding frequency of one! B) The Pepsi brand's P1 is probably 12-24 with a P2 of 12-17. C) It's barely February; soft drink sales won't even begin to move the needle in much of the country for at least another 2 months. D) Pepsi is introducing a concept that requires waaaaay more than 30 seconds to convey properly.

    I don't think anyone disagrees with the fact that a well-integrated, cross-platform media campaign is a good thing; the question here is how to build it in the most effective, efficient way possible. As someone from a media shop, you should know buys are (mostly) all about the numbers. It's obvious the Pepsi folks just didn't see the Super Bowl numbers adding up for them this year.

    PS - Talking about Facebook fans...It's interesting to note that Pepsi added 67% more Facebook fans by NOT advertising in the game while Coke added less than 10%...for it's $5,000,000 (or whatever a :60 cost).

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