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How Pepsi Used Pop Music to Build an Empire

Beyoncé, Britney Spears and Pink making the 'Pepsi Gladiators’ commercial in Rome, circa 2003. (Photo courtesy Pepsi/Getty Images)

In 2015, young R&B phenom Jamal Lyon inked a major endorsement deal with Pepsi. He got his own primetime spot directed by “Empire” creator Lee Daniels, joining the ranks of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Britney Spears, Kanye West, David Bowie, Papa Roach, and more who’ve done marquee ad campaigns for Pepsi. The commercial features Lyon on his way to perform a show, slamming a Pepsi on a New York subway. The train’s all pop-locking and mugging with hyperrealistic joy, alive with the Pepsi Generation once again.

Of course, this didn’t really happen. Or, it did happen, but technically not in real life. Such is the genius of the Pepsi-Cola Company and its marketing department, who placed this meta ad inside the a three-episode arc on season two of Fox’s “Empire.” The fictional Jamal Lyon (played by Jussie Smollett) landing an endorsement deal with Pepsi in a fake-but-real commercial (yes, directed by Lee Daniels) is perhaps the most self-aware and self-fulfilling campaign in the history of Pepsi’s unscrupulous advertising department.

For nearly 60 years, Pepsi’s mission has been to tie its soda inextricably to modern music and the aspiration of youth culture. Pepsi’s unchallenged relationship with musicians is so ingrained in our culture that it exists in a fictional universe as a means to sell real Pepsi in our real universe. As the old revenue streams for musicians dry up and as capitalism barrels on, is it possible now to separate the value of Pepsi from the value of the music playing alongside it? Moreover, is this separation something young music consumers, perhaps estranged to the very concept of selling out, can do?

The annual Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show is billed and received as the ne plus ultra cultural event of the year. One hundred million people glue themselves to four hours of television on this the high holiest day of advertising—and Pepsi has top billing. This Sunday will be Lady Gaga’s first grand stadium performance since launching a small rock-club tour behind the so-called rootsy authenticity of latest album Joanne (a tour that was thoroughly sponsored by Bud Light, by the way). Much like two of her inspirations, Madonna and Jeff Koons, Gaga delights in confounding art and commerce. She presents herself as an artist of fascinating intersection: just a gawky theatre kid now worth $275 million; just a New York cabaret singer who was once carried by a litter of men in a translucent pod to the Grammys.

With PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi sitting on President Trump’s Strategic and Policy Forum (the one Uber’s CEO recently exited), it’s unclear whether politics, broadly, will be involved in Gaga’s show. But if she goes off script and decries Trump as America’s own kleptocratic pustule and turns Super Bowl Sunday into St. Crispin’s Day, Pepsi’s ad department will no doubt offer a cheshire grin. Surely they didn’t blanch at the outrage surrounding Beyoncé’s Black Panther bandoliers last year because how could they, really? Pepsi has historically made their bones selling brown sugar water by invading and subverting counterculture.

Pepsi’s innovation in the field of nestling, settling, and establishing connections in pop culture began in 1960 with their first major ad campaign aimed at the youth market. Always playing second fiddle to Coca-Cola, the “Pepsi. For Those Who Think Young” approach was devised as a way to shed them of their underdog status. Pepsi realized that they were essentially a parity product, whose difference in taste and quality with Coca-Cola was seen as negligible (a specious claim to this day, but whatever). So in a revolutionary move at the time, they began to run ads that focused not on the quality of Pepsi, but the idea of Pepsi as a youth staple. In the early ’60s, ads for Pepsi were aimed at young boomers who “consumed soft drinks far in excess of their weight in population,” a former Pepsi executive noted, as found in Timothy Taylor’s book The Sound of Capitalism: Advertising, Music, and the Conquest of Culture.

“Pepsi was way ahead of the curve,” now says Taylor, a professor of social science and musicology at UCLA and the author of several books on music and capitalism. “Their early efforts to capture the youth market were clunky, but they were smart in trying to do that. They knew baby boomers were out there, and wanted to make their soft drink cool to them.”  

By 1964, the Cola Wars were gathering steam, and Pepsi had launched their now infamous campaign “Come Alive! You’re the Pepsi Generation.” The print ads featured hip, attractive kids with rapturous smiles, looking the pink of youth, sharing a Pepsi. “For us to name and claim a whole generation after our product was a rather courageous thing,” Alan Pottasch, head of advertising at Pepsi in the ’60s, would later recall. But this decision to claim an entire countercultural generation in opposition to the placid homogeneity of the ’50s would prove wildly successful for the rest of Pepsi’s career. “What you drank said something about who you were,” Pottasch continued. “We painted an image of our consumer as active, vital, and young at heart.” (Pepsi declined to comment for this story.)

Rock’n’roll, civil rights, and the Vietnam War were implanted in the zeitgeist of the late ’60s, so Pepsi bottled those spirits and poured them into its 1969 campaign, “You’ve Got A Lot To Live, and Pepsi’s Got a Lot To Give.” With a new theme song written by Joe Brooks (who would go on to write the hit ’70s ballad “You Light Up My Life”), Pepsi now sold liberation, idyllic societies free of commerce, and the sound of the Beatles dabbed with the spirit of Timothy Leary. In a release at the time, Pepsi described the tones of these new ads: “Exciting new groups doing out-of-sight new things to and for music. It’s youth’s bag and Pepsi-Cola is in it. There’s a whole new way of livin’ and Pepsi’s supplyin’ the background music…[it] obliterates the generation gap and communicates like a guru.”

Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Tammy Wynette, and Three Dog Night were among the artists who sang “You’ve Got a Lot To Live” for radio ads in the early ’70s. It was Pepsi’s entrée into the music industry, and the beginning of their seamless integration to sell the Pepsi Generation via musicians. The upshot here was that this was not all bad for black artists who, finally, had a global brand co-signing their mass appeal. “Many of these musicians are African American,” says Taylor, “and when Pepsi started using black musicians in the late ’60s, black musicians were for the most part happy to sign on because for them it represented mainstream acceptance.”

As Pepsi worked to tie their product to every demographic of the growing Gen X generation, they crashed through a whole new ceiling in 1984 when they paid Michael Jackson a reported $5 million for a commercial. That campaign would once again shift the culture of advertising and music. Jackson’s Thriller coup at MTV and family-friendly celebrity status made the new spot one of Pepsi’s first must-watch events for millions. Allen Rosenshine, the worldwide CEO of BBDO (Pepsi’s longtime ad agency), imagined the target audience to be between 12 and 24. “You can’t ignore the world of music if you wish to be the badge of the leading edge of youth,” he said (via The Sound of Capitalism). “...They express themselves through music, they live through music; MTV is not an isolated phenomenon. So if we’re going to be leading edge, we have to be in music.”

As soon as Jackson sang “You’re the Pepsi Generation” as a hellacious parody of the chorus of “Billie Jean,” Pepsi’s full integration was all but complete. Ninety-seven percent of the American public saw a version of that commercial at least a dozen times in the space of a year and Pepsi’s sales skyrocketed. Jackson was approached by Pepsi again in 1987 for a reported $15 million to do another campaign that premiered with resounding success on MTV.

These mega-deals opened the floodgates for musicians who saw Pepsi as the mecca of brand endorsement, from Madonna’s infamous “Like A Prayer” debut with the brand, to Ray Charles’ early ‘90s campaign, to Mariah Carey’s “original ringtones” spot, to Nicki Minaj’s ad built around her “Moment 4 Life,” to Beyoncé, who famously pocketed $50 million from Pepsi in 2013 for yet another ad—and that’s just the shortlist. An endorsement deal with Pepsi would put you in the pantheon of some of the most critically and commercially successful artists of all time. It’s quite a bulwark against the once gauche idea of selling out.

If there still exists two separate states of art and commerce, they are often smeared together by the marketing concept of creativity: the extremely clever ad, the artist-facing sponsored content, the spectacular Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show. As long as there is the appearance of creativity, the brand underwriting the show will fade into the background and the consumer will fawn upon its aesthetic bona fides. It may even be truly transcendent, leaping from mere creativity to high art. We were awed by Beyoncé’s cameo last year, and downright floored by her headlining spot in 2013. All Lady Gaga has to do capture our attention for about ten minutes, and the line between Pepsi and its musicians, between art and brands, will remain mostly hidden.

The “it’s complicated” relationship between art and commerce perpetuated by musicians and brands alike do not make for an easy and prescriptive response in 2017. But there is power nestled, settled, and established in consumers as well. Instead of waging war against capitalism, the consumer can siphon power from brands by looking at how other systems, like fandom or activism, create value and agency outside of capitalism. “ Virtually all the musicians I know are dying to get noticed by capitalism, but they’re not,” Taylor tells me. “On one hand we need to keep capitalism in focus because it’s the dominant system and because it’s exploitative. On the other hand, we need to learn how to better appreciate and notice other ways value is produced and say, ‘These are legitimate too.’”

Meanwhile, Pepsi now has a direct line to Trump and continues to position itself to be one of the Medicis of music’s future. The company recently launched The Sound Drop, a sort of promotional pipeline for artists gestating under the major labels, including Jidenna, Lukas Graham, and Alessia Cara. The platform uses MTV, Shazam, and iHeartMedia to push songs to a wider audience using a very artist-centered soft-branded approach. Pepsi also recently opened the Kola House in Manhattan, a club and cocktail lounge that serves as a “modern hub for consumers to share social and immersive experiences that were anchored in the exploration of our cola’s artisanal craft and flavor.” LCD Soundsystem played its opening in September. In front of an invite-only crowd with Swizz Beats and JB Smoove, with no logos behind them, you could barely tell it was put on by Pepsi. In a way, it was transcendent.