Earlier this year Pepsi announced it would recreate Cindy Crawford’s iconic 1992 Super Bowl spot for this year’s game. Twenty-six years later and Cindy is facing a new generation, a shifting social environment, and a Super Bowl that has become nearly equal parts advertising spectacle and sporting event. Are Pepsi and Cindy up for the challenge?
The format of the original ad, a salacious search for thirst-quenching satisfaction ending in ostensibly sweet comic misdirection, leveraged the supermodel zeitgeist of the early 90’s, and combined it with the old advertising adage that sex sells. However, in the new millennium, this strategy has faltered.
In 2015, Ameritest tested Charlotte McKinney’s infamous Carl’s Jr. Super Bowl Spot (an ad that takes the sex sells adage to its most extreme) and found that while attention getting, the spot failed to motivate consumers to visit the restaurant. (Read more about the findings here.) In the months following, Carl’s Jr.’s buxom bombshell burger business continued to render diminishing returns until in May of 2017, the restaurant chain announced a shift in strategy in an ad that claimed the previous campaign was the work of Carl Hardee Sr.’s immature offspring.
The business cost of the sex sells strategy, combined with the potential social costs given the current #metoo and #timesup movements, make harkening back to the 1992 spot seem like a risky endeavor. However, Cindy’s trial run on James Corden’s Late Late show in 2016, with over 15K likes and fewer than 300 dislikes, was viewed with nostalgia and admiration for Cindy’s Dorian Gray-esque foray into middle age, indicating that the reboot will be a safe bet.
But will it be too safe?
To be sure, given the huge misstep of Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner spot, their failed attempt join in a key cultural moment, the brand has a right to be cautious as it prepares to take the largest advertising stage of the year. But being too cautious could the biggest risk of all when it comes to Super Bowl advertising.
Ameritest has found that Super Bowl ads are nearly twice as attention getting as the average TV spot. One of the biggest past Super Bowl ad winners was Volkswagen’s 2011 “Little Darth,” which followed a thwarted childhood quest for control surreptitiously fulfilled by a father’s cunning use of his Jetta’s keyless ignition, enveloped by a strong Star Wars cultural reference. The great story, cute kid, and recognizable hook of the Darth Vader theme drew so much attention, and connected in such a significant way, that even today if you mention the “Little Darth” ad, most adults will know what you’re talking about.
This year, Amazon, Jack in the Box, and even Pepsi’s own Mountain Dew brand are combining star power and stories to create pre-game buzz that will hopefully convert to post-game sales. A Crawford recreation without some creative reimagining may struggle to get noticed.
Where the Volkswagen ad, and most Super Bowl ads, fell short was on branding. Often the drive to get noticed can take creative executions away from a story that makes sense for the brand, as a result Super Bowl spots typically achieve less than half the Ameritest norm on Top-of-Mind Brand Linkage. The 1992 Pepsi spot, in contrast, is a great example of brand integration. In the ad, the Pepsi clearly quenches Cindy’s thirst, playing the role of hero and tying the brand to the story. The product appears on screen through much of the second half of the ad, and the final comments from the adolescent peanut gallery, “Is that a great new Pepsi can, or what?” put viewer focus squarely on the brand. If the updated spot falls short of the attention-getting power of its rivals, it may make up for it by being well branded.
The final component of a strong ad is its ability to motivate viewers. Ameritest has found that the average Super Bowl spot struggles to motivate, though not to the same extent as the struggle for Branding. That said, recreating the 1992 Pepsi spot has the potential to engage two key memory systems to drive motivation.
The first is the procedural memory system. This system stores memories of physical reactions. In the case of Pepsi, Cindy downing an entire can creates a virtual consumption experience that could leave consumers making a mouth-watering run to the store (or the fridge). Some could even find themselves experiencing the virtual belch that in all likelihood was suppressed or cut from the original spot.
The nostalgia generated by referencing an iconic 90’s cultural moment engages the episodic memory system, which stores autobiographical memories that create one’s sense of self. Particularly for Gen X’ers, Pepsi eliciting fond memories of youth could create a relatable experience that has the audience thinking, “Maybe this is a brand for me.”
So, game day is upon us. And it’s time for Pepsi and Cindy to suit up and take the field. Will their play be too timid and get sacked by the star power of the competition? Or will their nostalgia reverse around clutter and bring the brand into the end zone? Tune in Sunday to find out!
Eldaa Daily is a Research Director at Ameritest.