Archeology (The Cola Wars)

Pepsi was in the middle of what was then called, THE COLA WARS. I believe that John Scully, famous for keeping Apple alive while Steve Jobs was wandering in the wilderness, started them with the PEPSI CHALLENGE, a series of taste tests between Pepsi and Coca Cola that Pepsi always won.

Then Roger Enrico stepped in and changed advertising into pop art by using icons like Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie in Pepsi commercials. Alan Pottasch and Phil Dusenberry joined the fray. Alan was Mr. Pepsi, and Phil was a terrific ad executive that matched and understood Enrico’s sensibilities perfectly.

Phil always believed in using the best directors for the work as he felt that they would bring a touch that might be lacking in the scripts and storyboards. At that time, Pepsi’s work was geared to a huge convention to celebrate the celebrities. Bob Giraldi had done the first Michael Jackson stuff (the burning hair) and Ridley Scott did the next phase.  Pepsi also did a few lesser spots to fill out the show.  I had never worked on major Pepsi stuff.  My relationship with Phil was based on a bunch of GE spots.

I was surprised when I got a few storyboards (for the ‘lesser’ spots). The ARCHAEOLOGY script was daunting and I called Ted Sann, Phil’s creative partner, and told him that it was a better spot for Ridley.  He agreed but said that Ridley was their first choice but he was unavailable, working on a movie.

“You’re stuck with it.”


I’ve forgotten who the ‘creatives’ were.

I started to do some homework and I contacted (actually went up north to see) Ralph McQuarrie, and then Syd Mead. McQuarrie was famous for STAR WARS, and Mead for BLADE RUNNER. The meetings were preliminary and we roughed out a budget, despite my complete lack of how to do the stuff in the script.

I just waited for approvals and got the news that Pepsi had arbitrarily cut the budget in half. HALF! I just think that they were just trying to kill the spot for some reason, but I just accepted their decision and plodded on. I met with every post house in town and they all laughed when they heard the budget and deadline. I looked like a fool.

To prove it, I accepted the budget cut.

I had hired a freelance producer who was experienced in this kind of stuff.  He discovered APOGEE, a company under the radar despite an Academy Award for STAR WARS. Grant McCune was one of the principals and he assured me that he (they) could do it all, and were the only ones that could. He proved to be a man of his word.

Ralph McQuarrie designed the futuristic Pepsi truck and the various elements of the ‘set.’  Syd Mead’s ideas were too dark for Pepsi.

I was able to get the terrific Michael Kaplan to do wardrobe and an actor, Bill O’Connell, was perfect for the part with his elfin characteristics. A problem arose with the art department.

The set was supposed to be built on risers to facilitate the proper perspectives for the green screen work. For some reason, the production designer ignored those specs and built the set on the floor.  To add to these problems, I wanted the futuristic Pepsi truck to fly above the professor for his last line. It was a last moment idea and I specified that it only had to be a painted flat but the designer ignored me and built  full sized, heavy model in three dimensions.  That meant that the grip department had to spend the entire night rigging an elaborate mechanism to fly this dangerous, overweight monstrosity.

The key grip, Tommy Doherty, worked like a maniac and did the job, an amazing assortment of pulleys that pulled the model silently above the actor’s head. I cursed the art department for making things so difficult, but stuff was working.


Bill was solid as a rock with the character through all the shooting until, the last line.  The line comes after he discovers an old Coca Cola bottle at the excavation site.  A student asks, “What is it, professor?” Bill is supposed to respond. “I have no idea.”



Bill couldn’t do the line properly and in some instances couldn’t remember it.  It may be that the timing of the device passing over his head was a block, but we must have done thirty takes.  The grips were a mess after that, especially having worked all night.

I met with the producer and he said we broke even financially, a miracle.

The spot isn’t as special visually as I would have liked. I was hamstrung with the deadlines and compromises I had to make, etc. etc. etc.

What’s new?

It was a huge hit, however.

A week or so later I get a call from my accountant.

“Who’s this company, Apogee?”

“They did the special effects for the Pepsi spot. Why do you ask?”

“We just got a bill from them, $90,000.”

Oh well.

The commercial went on to win the Grand Prix at Cannes and by some accounts forced Coca Cola to change its formula and come out with ‘NEW’ Coke, that eventually became a marketing disaster.

Enrico, Dusenberry, and Pottasch were right about accessing pop culture through advertising.  I’m not sure this particular commercial fit the Michel Jackson, Madonna, concept, but it made a huge impact in the marketplace that transcended  its original purpose. I still wonder if they would have done it if I hadn’t agreed to the budget (cuts).

There is a final irony. The next year, Pepsi wrote a musical presentation for their convention starring Bill O’ Connell as the ‘Professor.’ He slid through the dialogue and musical numbers with great ease. I marveled at his performance but never forgot how many takes he took for one line of dialogue.