More on Story: How Pepsi Put Its Message in a Bottle

The year was 1995.

The average house price in the U.S. was under $68,000, tuition at Harvard was (only) $23,500, and a twelve-ounce bottle of Pepsi cost less than a buck. It was a memorable year for Pepsi. With the help of creatives at BBDO New York and commercial and film director Simon West—who brought us Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the movie that made Angelina Jolie a star—Pepsi ran one of the most memorable thirty-second TV spots in the history of American advertising.

It’s a pretty simple spot, but it’s classic storytelling—the kind I believe we could use a little more of today. It opens with a shot of a golden sandy beach and bluer-than-blue ocean. The camera pans right to reveal a kid methodically draining a bottle of Pepsi through a straw. In the background is a curly red-haired young girl that turns out to be the boy’s sister. Wholly unremarkable—that is, until the boy reaches the bottom of the bottle. But that doesn’t stop him. He continues to suck on the straw, creating a vacuum force that pulls him inside the bottle headfirst until his whole body is encased in glass. This activity does not go unnoticed. A silver-haired lady sunning herself nearby looks up with a start at the sucking sound. The red-haired girl lets out a perfect little sister’s “Eew!” Once the boy is fully in the bottle, it falls and bounces off a blow-up life preserver before landing in the sand, where we see the boy smiling mischievously from the inside of the bottle. His sister rushes over, picks up her brother in the bottle and cries out, “Mom, he’s done it again!”

Thirty-second TV spots present a unique challenge for creatives. Every good story must have a beginning, middle and end—and in this form, that all has to happen in less time than it takes you to get up and get a cold one from your fridge. It also helps consumer recall if there’s some kind of unexpected twist that makes the commercial memorable—which in adspeak is sometimes called the “reveal.” In his 1983 book Ogilvy on Advertising, iconic ad man David Ogilvy lists fourteen elements that are necessary for a great TV commercial. And from brand identification to product close-ups to sound effects, the Boy in the Bottle spot checks every one of Mr. Ogilvy’s boxes.

In this spot, there are two unexpected twists. In the first place, we don’t expect the kid to get sucked into his own bottle. We also don’t expect his sister’s line at the end, which reveals that what just happened to her brother has happened before. When she calls out, “Mom, he’s done it again!” it cements Pepsi’s message: you can never get too much of a good thing. The beauty is that she “says” that with having to “say” it, if you get what I mean. For the viewer, Pepsi allows their message to go down easy.

In terms of its storytelling quality, I can’t help comparing Boy in the Bottle to a recent Pepsi spot featuring Shaquille O’Neal. The Shaq, in fact, has a long history advertising the Pepsi brand—including some brilliant spots that date back to the era of the Bottle Boy. But in their new spot “I Wish” for Pepsi mini cans, they tell a story we already know—and have known since he was drafted by the Orlando Magic in 1992: Shaq’s a big guy! He’s over seven feet tall and weighs more than three hundred pounds! Only those emerging from extended witness protection programs or cryogenic preservation could have missed that fact! Hence, there’s nothing unexpected. No reveal. It’s one “height” gag after another. Unfortunately, “I Wish” plays like every music video we’ve ever seen since the dawn of VH1. Watching it reminded me of certain CDs that used to skip on my old Sony Walkman back in the day because in scene after scene after scene, this commercial tells us the same story—and it’s a story we’ve already heard.

I think back to another Pepsi spot featuring Shaq from 1994. This spot not only had story. It had a heart. In this commercial, a serious Shaq strides onto an inner city basketball court where some kids are shooting hoops. He demonstrated his prowess on the court, even bending the hoop down at one point to dunk the ball while the kids watch in awe. We clock one kid in particular, too young to be in the game yet as he watches from the sidelines. His face shows us that in his mind, Shaq is God. When he’s done playing, Mr. O’Neal seeks refreshment in a cooler beside the court. To his dismay, the cooler contains nothing but melting ice. That’s when he spots the young kid holding a frosty bottle of Pepsi like it’s the last one in captivity. Shaq stalks over to the kid, bends his seven-foot frame down over the boy, assuming his sheer size and star power will cause the kid to surrender his Pepsi. But in a surprise turnover, the little boy tells his hero, “Don’t even think about it.”

I’m not sure where Shaq’s “I Wish” spot will end up—maybe on an old American Bandstand where some breathless teen will tell Dick Clark, “It had a good beat and I could dance to it.” The Boy in A Bottle spot won a Golden Lion at the Cannes Festival. In an interview with the online digital magazine Shots, director Simon West admits that he didn’t even attend the award ceremony. He told the interviewer, “I didn’t even know what Cannes was.” West’s spot also wound up in the permanent collection of The Museum of Modern Art as a shining example of classic American advertising art. And that’s how I’ll end this story.

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