The Super Bowl has long served as a stage for brands to deploy high-powered celebrity endorsements. If a company is going to drop millions on fleeting seconds of airtime, why not recruit A-list talent to get the most bang for its buck?
Super Bowl LVII is no exception. Announced commercials for the 2023 broadcast so far feature the likes of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul reprising their “Breaking Bad” roles; Alicia Silverstone doing the same for “Clueless;” and a cadre of other recognizable faces, from Jon Hamm and Brie Larson to Diddy. Pepsi, which will run in-game commercials for the first time in three years Sunday, is trying to flip the endorsement script on its head with a new campaign titled “Great Acting or Great Taste.” VaynerMedia and Caviar Productions assisted.
Separate 60-second spots directed by Jorma Taccone (of Lonely Island fame) star Ben Stiller and Steve Martin in their first Super Bowl appearances as they break the fourth wall to ask whether the viewer should trust what they’re saying. The goal of the campaign is to encourage consumers to try out a revamped version of Pepsi Zero Sugar for themselves rather than relying on the word of paid spokespeople — in this case, comedians who can acknowledge their presumed phoniness with a wink.
“There's a generally healthy skepticism [among] consumers about advertising today. One of the underpinnings of it, culturally, is that advertising as a craft relies on actors,” Todd Kaplan, CMO of Pepsi, told Marketing Dive in an interview ahead of the game. “There's no day that that offense is in fuller effect than the Super Bowl.”
This marks the first time that the PepsiCo marketer has put two ads behind its Super Bowl efforts. The TV spots ladder into an SMS promotion that will see the brand give away up to 10 million cans and bottles of Pepsi Zero Sugar, which is now made with a different sweetener system. Those who text a 81234 number with a “FREE ZERO” message and a photo of their receipt will be comped for the purchase, building off a platform launched around the NFL playoffs.
“We're going to put our money where our mouth is,” Kaplan said of the giveaway.
The SMS number will appear in lower-third screen placements, social posts, pre-game ads and billboards around the Super Bowl. Foodservice partnerships with DoorDash and UberEats add a delivery component to the game-day activities, while Pepsi will also command the top promoted tweet spot on Twitter for 24 hours to spark discussion about what’s real and what’s acting.
“People already love to debate the game, the ads,” said Kaplan. “It's a day when everybody has these big celebrities that are getting paid to promote these products … Some probably feel more authentic than others, so we think it's just a fun discussion to have.”
Playing on expectations
Kaplan admits that Pepsi, a longtime NFL partner, is as guilty as any company of relying on star wattage to make a splash. For the past decade, the soft drink marketer backed the Super Bowl Halftime Show, a concert extravaganza that attracted some of the biggest names in music. Apple Music takes over the sponsorship rights this year with a performance from Rihanna. Past Pepsi commercials have also leveraged the appeal of Britney Spears, Cindy Crawford, David Bowie and other greats.
Given Pepsi’s well-established work with celebrities, it’s not necessarily looking to call out rivals for their Hollywood dependence so much as lean into what Kaplan described as an “interesting cultural and creative tension” that exists in advertising today.
“We thought it was a great opportunity to do something that was a bit more simple and call it hard-working around driving trial of the product versus just getting people to laugh,” said Kaplan.
There are, of course, the internal contradictions of the ads themselves, which rely on familiarity with Martin and Stiller for their humor. Stiller’s spot echoes his intro as fictional washed-up actor Tugg Speedman in “Tropic Thunder,” showing him in various blockbuster movie parodies that lead into a surprise cameo from Derek Zoolander.
Martin’s plays up the “Only Murders in the Building” star’s droll sensibilities as he encounters everyday scenarios that require him to act out a range of emotions. Both close on the spokespeople acknowledging the superficiality of these situations before taking a sip of Pepsi Zero Sugar and praising the taste — only to quickly undercut the moment once again by raising the question of whether they’re just acting.
Pepsi is hoping consumers will talk about the issue further online with the Twitter takeover and a #RealorActing hashtag. Twitter has been offering advertisers steep discounts to get them back on the app for the Super Bowl following an exodus in response to volatile ownership under Elon Musk, The Wall Street Journal reported. A Pepsi representative in an email said the brand doesn’t comment on its spending figures. Kaplan said he views the platform as going through some “growing pains” but still sees it as an important venue for capitalizing on buzz around water-cooler moments like the Super Bowl.
“At the end of the day, it is the place where real-time conversation currently is still taking place,” said Kaplan. “We thought it was important to be a part of those conversations.”