Arby's Made a Commercial for Pepsi, and It's Greatby
Arby’s had a problem. In October, the fast-food chain had already finalized its advertising for the year when it realized it had forgotten to feature Pepsi in two commercials, as it had promised. So it asked its Minneapolis-based advertising agency, Fallon, to do something to placate PepsiCo. “People would notice if we just shoehorned a Pepsi product into a commercial,” says Matt Heath, creative director at Fallon. “So we said, OK, what if we didn’t do it like that?”
Instead, Heath came up with a 30-second spot that features nothing but a cold glass of fizzy, bubbling Pepsi and an angry-sounding voiceover by actor Ving Rhames. “Arby’s messed up and forgot about the second commercial,” Rhames explains. “So here it is. Pepsi, cool, refreshing, and goes great with Arby’s sandwiches and other Arby’s foods. Arby’s: We have Pepsi.”
When Fallon showed its Pepsi ad to Arby’s, it thought the company hated it. “We thought we’d lost them because we were on this conference call and they were just laughing through the whole thing,” says Rocky Novak, Fallon’s managing director. “But to their credit, they said yes. Pepsi said yes. It was pretty awesome in terms of the number of people who had to say yes to this thing.”
Arby’s is only running its Pepsi commercial in New York, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis. Fallon says it didn’t purchase any online advertising and plans to stop airing the spot after Dec. 13. But despite the ad’s low profile, it has already racked up 1.1 million YouTube views in three days. On Arby’s Facebook page, it has generated 10 times as many likes and comments as the typical Arby’s post, although most of them seem to have devolved into a Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi debate, with one person declaring his love for RC Cola.
Arby’s and Fallon have been experimenting with candor for a while now. A commercial from earlier this year, also voiced by Rhames, shows a row of Arby’s sandwiches piled high with meat before flashing to the tag line: “Arby’s: We have the meats.” That line replaced its earlier slogan, “Slicing up freshness,” which doesn’t really say anything about Arby’s—or sandwiches, for that matter. Meat, on the other hand, definitely does.
“We don’t think consumers need to be talked down to,” says Heath. “Too often in advertising, brands feel like it’s necessary to hold the hand of the consumer through the messaging. But consumers are smart, intelligent, and savvy. So we have a very straightforward message.”
Advertisers know what we think about their work—it’s manipulative, it’s dishonest, and most of the time we don’t want to see it. We fast-forward through commercials on TV, we flip past ads in the newspaper, we install pop-up blockers online and hide sponsored posts on our Facebook feeds. In response, the advertising industry has invented all sorts of ways to trick us into thinking about—and hopefully buying—their clients’ products. They place them in movies and TV shows. They hire so-called “storytellers” to create “narratives” about their brands. They tweet at us. Sometimes they even write press releases that look like news articles in the hopes that readers won’t be able to tell the difference. But they know we don’t want that. We just want to be told what’s for sale, what it does, and then we’ll decide for ourselves if we want to buy it.
Companies are slowly catching on to what Heath calls “brand authenticity,” although if they were really authentic they’d just call it the “no more bullshit” approach. The idea gained momentum in 2010 with Wieden + Kennedy’s absurdist Old Spice commercials (sample script: “Hello, ladies, look at your man. Now back to me. Now back at your man. Now back to me. Sadly, he isn’t me. But if he … switched to Old Spice, he could smell like me”). Since then, Starbucks has advertised its blonde roast by admitting that a lot of people disliked its dark coffee and Buick occasionally nods to the fact that most people associate its cars with their grandparents. In February, Nike ran a commercial for the Nike+ FuelBand SE that tells you in plain language exactly what it does (“The Nike+ FuelBand SE’s only got one little button. … It will tell you important information like how active you’ve been today and the time. … It’s a very good button”). The Scandanavian bank Nordnet is currently running a series of ads in which a paid actor says things such as “I’ve been paid $8,000 to tell you how great Nordnet is compared to other banks. They chose me because I’m more handsome than their real CEO.”
Not every company can do this, of course. And they shouldn’t. If they did, there’d be no way to tell one fast-food chain from another. Shoe companies would have to tell you that wearing their sneakers won’t make you an athlete, and most beauty products would be out of luck entirely because, no matter what you do, nothing will really stop you from aging and getting wrinkles. There is a similarity to these authenticity scripts that can get a little repetitive at times. But as long as most companies still pretend that their products will make you happier, thinner, richer, sexier, or married to a supermodel, a straightforward pitch for drinking Pepsi at Arby’s will grab your attention.