The Cola Wars: Attacking the brand ambassadors

By , agencyfaqs! | In | June 06, 2002
Coca-Cola India and Pepsi maintain that they have never lampooned one another's brand ambassadors, and have merely spoofed ideas. But everyone isn't convinced

"Unlike the competition, we never spoof individuals but brands."

"We only spoof ideas. We have never shown our competitor's celebrities in poor light, but our competition has always been doing that to ours."

Care for a round of mix-and-match? Well, one of these two quotes comes from Shripad Nadkarni, vice-president (marketing), Coca-Cola India. The other is from Deepak Jolly, executive vice-president - corporate communications, Pepsi Foods. Any guesses on which quote can be attributed to which gentleman?

On second thoughts, don't bother - it's beside the point. What is pertinent is that both Pepsi and Coca-Cola India insist that they - as individual companies - do not create advertising that lampoons the other's brand ambassadors. At the same time, both believe that 'the competition' has consistently been running down their respective brand ambassadors. Good. The two at least agree on some things.

However, outside these two companies, next to everyone - the aam janta, the informed category watcher and the advertising pundit - vouches that both Pepsi and Coca-Cola India have indulged in slinging mud at one another's brand ambassadors some time or the other. In some form or the other. And, at times, the matter ends up in court, usually as public interest litigation (PIL). Of course, in private, the knee-jerk reaction to every PIL is that it has actually been 'engineered' by the rival.

A recent instance of a PIL that resulted in a hearing pertains to the Sprite commercial that spoofed Pepsi's Bachchan-Tendulkar ad. Among other complaints, the petitioner had appealed that the Sprite ad was created merely to insult Amitabh Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar. The Faridabad court - before which the case had been brought up - refused to uphold this argument, although it took exception to the usage of the phrases 'Meri to kat gayee' and 'Meri to doob gayee' on the grounds of obscenity and vulgarity. The court has subsequently restrained the airing of the Sprite ad till a decision is taken on the PIL.

While the court was right in dismissing the suggestion that the Sprite ad was created merely to insult Bachchan and Tendulkar, the fact is that some people (consumers and advertising professionals) couldn't quite stomach the derision of the two icons. Ditto when Pepsi spoofed Coke ambassador Hrithik Roshan in the 'kiss' ad featuring Shah Rukh Khan. Quite a few people (including non-ad industry folk) balked at Pepsi for mimicking Hrithik as a braces-wearing loser. In both cases, the issue was, "Why is Sprite/Pepsi making fun of the 'hero of the rival ad'?"

Put differently, the problem is that people see it as ridiculing the rival's brand ambassador, as opposed to ridiculing the rival's advertising. It is fine taking digs at the rival's creative/strategic idea, but why drag the poor rival ambassador into the mess?

For all the denials from Coke and Pepsi, some of their spoofs certainly look as if spoofing the rival ambassador was clearly a part of the plan. How else can Pepsi explain the presence of a Hrithik lookalike in the 'kiss' ad? Was the lookalike integral to the ad? No. How can Coca-Cola India explain the chimps in the 'Don't be a bandar, Taste the Thunder' ad for Thums Up (made in response to Pepsi's Azhar-Jadeja ad)? What was Thums Up implying? And what about the tonsured protagonist in the Lehar Soda ads currently on air? Is it mere coincidence that Thums Up ambassador Salman Khan has just acquired the skinhead look?

Compare this to what might be called 'idea spoofing'. The 'Jaggu se gentleman…' print ad for Sprite that hit back at Pepsi's Preity Zinta-chimp commercial. No potshots at Zinta here, yet a subtle way of telling the consumer that Sprite is for a more evolved species. Or the first edit of the Fardeen Khan-Rahul Khanna ad Pepsi released early this year. No digs at any specific endorser. Just a neat way of saying 'life actually kaisee honee chahiye'. (Of course, the second 'business thanda' edit fell quite flat, though it didn't spoof Aamir Khan - mercifully.) Or the classic 'Nothing official…' campaign.

"Both are certainly overdoing spoofing in the Indian context, and I think taking potshots at the rival brand ambassador is too extreme," feels Pranesh Misra, director, Lowe. "You must remember that your rival's brand ambassador enjoys a franchise, in terms of loyalty and fan following, that goes beyond that brand's user group, and might even extend to your user group. So you might have a Pepsi loyalist who is a Salman Khan fan. The big risk is that you might end up upsetting your customer. Which is why both Coke and Pepsi attack one another with flanker brands. Still it's a big risk."

Shabnam Panjwani, vice-president and manager, Everest Integrated Communications, thinks that targeting brand ambassadors is quite meaningless. "Take potshots at your rival's central theme - if you must," she says. "Also, most of these spoofs seem to lack in ideas. What is Sprite spoofing? The Bachchan-Tendulkar ad is about two people flying kites, so your spoof should stick to that. Why take potshots at props and people? When Coke and Pepsi do standalone advertising, they do great work. So why not focus energies on creating great but simple advertising like 'Thanda matlab Coca-Cola' or the Bachchan-Yash Pathak ad?"

One reason why lampooning the rival brand ambassador is appealing is because, in the case of the colas at least, the brand ambassadors are the most 'visible and recalled' advertising elements. "Yes, the advertising ideas hinge on the ambassadors, so it could be true," shrugs Misra. Panjwani too agrees. "Denigrate the ambassador and denigrate the brand is possibly the reasoning," she says.

'Easiest identifiable spoof point' lies at the core of the issue, according to filmmaker Ram Madhvani of Equinox Films. "It's not as if they don't spoof situations and ideas - they do," he says. "But sometimes, there is no clear idea in the ad that you are spoofing, so the writer may be forced to find a spoof point that hits home easily. And this could be the brand ambassador. I don't think they exclusively and consciously target one another's ambassadors. I think both are merely looking at character representations that will catch the consumer's attention. Also, the spirit of the spoof is to have fun."

Misra agrees about the 'fun' bit. "In fact, the entire category is about fun. But the Indian psyche is not so liberal, so what may seem funny at the agency level may end up being a bit of a disaster." Panjwani tends to agree. "The ground reality is that people grimace at the Lehar ads. Yes, the agency and the client are happy as their egos have been sated through this tit-for-tat."

Interestingly, both Coca-Cola India and Pepsi are aware of the dangers of attacking one another's ambassadors. While Pepsi does not admit it, insiders say that many in the company were against the Hrithik spoof. Yet, it was aired, and they admit the brand paid a heavy price for doing so. And although Nadkarni categorically says that Coke "never does that", when asked about Thums Up's spoof on Azhar and Ajay Jadeja, he says cautiously, "I was not involved with Coca-Cola India at that time, so I wouldn't comment on that."

He is, however, insistent that the spoof on the Bachchan-Tendulkar ad was not derogatory to either personality. "That ad is all about the Sprite attitude," he says. "What the Sprite drinker thinks about naach-gaana and patang udaana. We never spoofed Bachchan or Sachin. We never spoofed Preity Zinta or Cyrus. It has always been Pepsi that has been attacking us with either Lehar Soda or the Hrithik clone. Honestly, don't ask me or Pepsi… Put up the Sprite and Lehar Soda ads on your site and ask people which spoof is better and sensible. I'd love to see the results." © 2002 agencyfaqs!

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