Pepsi Is Back in the Game (Show)
Cynthia B. Meyers / College of Mount Saint Vincent
In this trailer for the new Fox game show, Cherries Wild, host Jason Biggs asks contestants trivia questions: “If you’re right, you win cash!” And then contestants get a chance to spin slot-machine reels: “Line up five wild cherries on those reels, and they are leaving here with a quarter of a million dollars!” Just another game show, following the well-known conventions of the genre, established way back in the early 1930s when radio “quiz shows” proliferated due to their cheap production costs, built-in dramatic tension (who would win?), and audience participation strategies. However, Cherries Wild has even more in common with those old radio quiz shows: it is controlled by a sponsor—in this case, Pepsi. Pepsi does not just finance the program, Pepsi produces it, involving its executives in every detail, such as the set design that features the colors of Pepsi’s logo.[ (( Brian Steinberg, “Pepsi Bets on TV’s ‘Cherries Wild’ to Hook Fans Who Won’t Watch Ads,” Variety, 26 January 2021. ))] To generate as much audience involvement as possible, Pepsi offers an app for playing along at home. Why is Pepsi taking the risk of producing its own program? First, to sell its product, Pepsi Wild Cherry, just as radio program sponsors of the 1930s and 1940s once did; and second, as a Variety headline succinctly explains: “Pepsi Bets on TV’s Cherries Wild to Hook Fans Who Won’t Watch Ads.” Audiences, especially younger ones, are expert at avoiding interruptive commercials. But if they want to watch Cherries Wild, they cannot avoid thinking about Pepsi Wild Cherry.
Of course, just as game shows are a tradition in American broadcasting, so is sponsorship, and Pepsi likewise has a history of sponsoring programs to promote its products. Named by its inventor pharmacist in 1902 to indicate the drink relieved indigestion, Pepsi has been fighting ever since to compete with the dominant Coca-Cola, promoting its brand through comic strips (“Pepsi and Pete: the Pepsi-Cola Cops”), contests, and skywriting, before it finally broke through in the early 1940s with the popularity of a jingle played millions of times on the radio: “Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/Twelve full ounces/that’s a lot/Twice as much for a nickel too/Pepsi-Cola is the drink for you!”[ (( “Television Stamps Quality on Pepsi,” Broadcasting, 24 June 1957, 116-122. ))]
Though this jingle was the first to be broadcast on a “spot” basis separately from a sponsored program,[ (( Timothy Taylor, The Sounds of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2012), 87. ))] Pepsi sought a presence on radio through sponsoring its own radio programs as well. In 1940, with the Biow ad agency’s guidance, Pepsi sponsored some newscasts on CBS; in 1949-50, Pepsi sponsored the espionage drama series, Counterspy.[ (( “How Pepsi Bounced Back,” Sponsor, 8 September 1952, 25-27, 60-66. ))] But the results were disappointing, possibly because there was no clear connection between the soft drink and either the news or espionage. Having attracted customers by its lower price, Pepsi lost them again in the late 1940s when the price of sugar, and its bottles, increased.[ (( Richard Tedlow, New and Improved: The Story of Mass Marketing in America (Basic Books, 1990), 92. ))] New leadership at Pepsi in 1950 under Alfred Steele (soon-to-be husband of Joan Crawford) brought new marketing strategies, including the slogan, “More bounce to the ounce.” In order to change Pepsi’s image as a bargain brand, Steele reduced the soda’s sugar content and targeted women with the slogan “light refreshment.”[ (( Tedlow, New and Improved, 100. ))] Pepsi’s advertising began to emphasize “gracious living.”[ (( “How Pepsi Bounced Back,” 60. ))]
The primary vehicle for Pepsi’s marketing makeover was its sponsorship of The Faye Emerson Show (CBS, 1949-51), a 15-minute talk show hosted by the gracious and “snowy shouldered” actress.[ (( How Pepsi Bounced Back,” 62. For more on Faye Emerson, see Mary Desjardins, Recycled Stars: Female Film Stardom in the Age of Television and Video (Duke University Press, 2015), 22-23, 35-38; Christine Becker, It’s the Pictures That Got Small: Hollywood Film Stars on 1950s Television (Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 69-104; Maureen Mauk, “Politics Is Everybody’s Business: Resurrecting Faye Emerson, America’s Forgotten First Lady of Television,” Journal of Cinema and Media Studies 59, no. 4 (Summer 2020): 129-152. ))] Emerson, like many radio hostesses before her, specialized in building a warm, friendly parasocial relationship with her audience, welcoming guests for a (mostly) unscripted chat. To reduce audience annoyance, the advertising was limited to the Pepsi jingles that opened and closed the program, but the drink and its slogans were casually integrated into the program by Emerson. Offering her guests a Pepsi-Cola, Emerson would work in Pepsi catchphrases; for example, in an interview with Duke Ellington, Emerson explained, “Like a great pop song, Pepsi-Cola hits the spot!”[ (( Mauk, “Politics Is Everybody’s Business,” 138. ))]
A March 30, 1951, telecast opens with Emerson briefly showing some artwork, including a portrait of herself, followed by the Pepsi jingle featuring stop-motion animated Pepsi bottles. Then (at 00:42) Emerson explains that her portrait was created not from oil paint but entirely from Pepsi syrup. This segues into her chat about art with two artist guests. After a few minutes (at 4:27), Emerson suddenly calls, “Dick, can we have some Pepsi-Cola?” and a young man brings in a tray of Pepsi as they continue chatting. Emerson pours out the Pepsi, and although chatting about a different topic, suddenly turns to the camera and says (at 5:19), “I just want to say to you out there that you don’t have to be an artist, you know, to enjoy ice cold Pepsi-Cola.” After a few more words about Pepsi, Emerson hands glasses of Pepsi to her guests and continues their chat.
Although such obvious product plugs may look
awkward to us today, at the time advertisers hoped they were less annoying than
separate commercials that interrupted the program content. Also, Emerson’s easy
charm made the plugs less intrusive than they might seem from this description.
Pepsi cancelled the program in April 1951 but held to the strategy of using lovely women hosts to promote Pepsi as an element of “gracious living.” Emerson briefly hosted a travel program for Pepsi, Wonderful Town (1951-52, CBS), though she never left the studio. Pepsi then sponsored two dramatic anthologies, Short, Short Stories (1952-53, NBC), intended to be an “O. Henryesque” 15-minute short story format, and Pepsi-Cola Playhouse (1953-55, ABC), at first a live then a filmed half-hour anthology program, both hosted by a series of gracious women, including Polly Bergen, Arlene Dahl, and Ruth Wood, who were instructed to “carry on the tradition started by Faye Emerson in giving sophistication to the cola drink.”[ (( “How Pepsi Bounced Back,” 27. ))] But the dramatic anthologies, like the spy radio program before them, were not naturally adapted to create a sense of “sponsor identification” with Pepsi in the minds of audiences.
In 1956, Pepsi’s new ad agency, Kenyon & Eckhardt, suggested sponsoring a few individual television “spectaculars” that could garner large audiences for a relatively small investment.[ (( “Television Stamps Quality on Pepsi,” 116. ))] On March 31, 1957, Pepsi co-sponsored the live broadcast of Cinderella, starring Julie Andrews, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s first musical designed especially for a live television broadcast rather than the stage.[ (( The version found on YouTube is a film of a dress rehearsal and is missing all the sponsors’ messages. ))] It was seen by an estimated 60 percent of Americans.[ (( Bert Fink, “Behind the Creation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Instantly Classic Cinderella for CBS,” Playbill, 22 July 2020. ))] Wanting to avoid criticism from viewers, Pepsi and its agency settled on providing commercials with the “softest of the soft-selling messages” that would resonate with the Cinderella story.[ (( “Television Stamps Quality on Pepsi,” 118. ))]
Of the three Pepsi commercials for Cinderella, the final one, running 90 seconds, was considered a stunning accomplishment of live cinematography: using a single take and twin actresses, the commercial purported to illustrate moments in the life of a modern woman designed to echo the Cinderella story. Opening with a young girl crossing a small bridge, the camera pans to her as a young bride, “falling in love,” and then, according to the narrator’s voiceover, “living happily ever after. In real life, however,” the narrator continues as the scene shifts to the woman working in the kitchen, “a girl has to work at living happily ever after. First off, our heroine decided to stay beautiful, slim, and attractive, so she went for long walks.” We see the actress pushing a baby carriage. We see a group of women fighting over handbags for sale; the narrator continues, “And she engaged in competitive sports,” as we see her grab a sparkly purse. Segueing into a sleekly modern living room, the narrator explains, “Well, she still is beautiful, slim, and attractive. No wonder, since she follows the modern trend toward a lighter diet.” We see the elegantly dressed woman bring a tray of Pepsi bottles with glasses to her formally dressed and seated husband. “Never heavy or too sweet, it refreshes without filling. So, whenever the occasion calls for the modern, light refreshment, so does our heroine. Have a Pepsi!” The couple sips their sodas.
Broadcasting magazine claimed the commercial showed that “Pepsi-Cola is synonymous with gracious living”[ (( “Television Stamps Quality on Pepsi,” 118. ))] but the obviously gendered appeal to myths of domestic felicity and feminine subordination were designed not to interrupt the Cinderella narrative so much as to reinforce it.
By 1960, Pepsi had a new ad agency, BBDO, a new slogan (“Think young!”), and had begun advertising on action programs (Asphalt Jungle; Cheyenne, ABC), before returning to its strategy of appealing to young women by sponsoring the Miss America Pageant in 1962-63.[ (( Alfred R. Kroeger, “Rising Tide: Soft Drinks and TV,” Television Magazine, May 1963, 89. ))] In the 1960s BBDO would shift to the “Pepsi Generation” campaign, which for the next five decades would involve not sponsored programs but cinematically elaborate commercials featuring top music stars such as Michael Jackson, Britney Spears, Madonna, and Beyoncé, who performed their hits with carefully rewritten lyrics.
But now, in 2021, when audiences are obviously avoiding commercials, even those featuring top music artists, Pepsi has returned to a proven strategy to attract audience attention: sponsoring a game show. Game shows promise drama and the possibility of riches to those neither famous nor wealthy; the audience participation element encourages active engagement rather than passive viewing; and past scandals over “quiz show” rigging have long since faded from popular memory. Whether or not Cherries Wild proves to be a good investment, Pepsi has long been an effective marketer; by returning to program sponsorship rather than relying solely on interruptive commercials, Pepsi is back in the game (show).
- Trailer for Cherries Wild.
- 1939 Pepsi-Cola jingle.
- The Faye Emerson Show, March 30, 1951 (Internet Archive).
- Pepsi commercial from Cinderella, March 31, 1957.