The old sports joke – "I was watching a fight, and all of a sudden, a hockey game broke out." – may come true in a different sport. Because millions of television viewers watching an intense and vehement soda battle the evening of Sunday, February 2, 2014, may, if they're lucky, see a Super Bowl game break out.
"SodaStream is headed back to the Super Bowl, where it plans to take direct aim at Coke and Pepsi with a 30-second ad in the fourth quarter," Advertising Age reported November 1. And they're headed back with a vengeance.
David vs. Goliath
SodaStream, in case you missed their spot and the controversy leading up to it in this year's Super Bowl, makes home soda-making machines. They also make commercials violating most networks' broadcadst standards departments' no-trashcanning rule, which prohibits physically destroying or discarding competitors' packaging.
For this year's game, SodaStream produced a commercial that showed Coke and Pepsi bottles exploding to, as Ad Age put it, "dramatize the environmental pitch that SodaStream could have 'saved 500 million bottles on game day alone.'" CBS rejected it, giving SodaStream lots of free publicity, along with "about 5 million views on YouTube, which we didn't pay for," according to CEO Daniel Birnbaum.
Birnbaum hopes that Fox, which will air next year's Super Bowl, will cut him more slack that CBS did.
He doesn't know what his 2014 commercial's going to look like or say. He doesn't know who's going to shoot it. He doesn't even know which ad agency's going to create it, because he still hasn't hired one. But deep down inside, he somehow knows that his company's new commercial will be "edgy." (One other thing he knows is that his spot will run in the fourth quarter – after the Pepsi-sponsored halftime show and after two Pepsi commercials during game time, and probably after Coke's commercials, whose air schedules haven't been made public yet.)
"[I]t will be edgy because that is who we are," he said. "You have to be edgy if you are challenging and disrupting a big category."
According to Kantar Media, SodaStream spent $11 on measured media the first half of this year. The first quarter, they spent $4.5 million on network television. The air time for the 30-second commercial they ended up running that quarter cost $3.8 million, or 84 percent of their media budget.
And that, Birnbaum contends, is the real reason CBS wouldn't let him blow up Coke and Pepsi bottles on television. "CBS chickened out and they just didn't want to take a risk of pissing off Coke and Pepsi who are big, big sponsors of theirs," he told Ad Age.
Cola Wars II?
Though Coke and Pepsi have been figuratively duking it out for more than a century, the only time the fight got really vehement was in the so-called Cola Wars of 1975.
That's when Pepsi directly confronted its bigger rival head-on with a "Pepsi Challenge" campaign. This was built around blind taste tests in which regular consumers, and later celebrities, compared Coke and Pepsi on camera, without knowing which was which, and pronounced Pepsi the winner.
This wounded Coca-Cola so badly that they reformulated their lead soda as New Coke, which, when released on the marketplace, wounded them even more as consumers rejected the very taste of it.
Back in 1975, Pepsi was picking on someone close to its own size. But for 2014, tiny SodaStream will be punching way above its weight and taking them both on – not on the basis of taste or enjoyment, but rather the fact that is has less sugar. and next to no packaging.
"Maybe it's time for these big companies to take responsibility for the health of America and confront the obesity issue in a more honest way and the environmental hazard of bottles," Birnbaum says.
But the last quarter of a Super Bowl game isn't exactly the time when people are most receptive to health-and-environment lectures.
Will history repeat itself?
If history repeats itself, there's a chance that viewers may be still paying attention to SodaStream's message, whatever it turns out to be.
Super Bowl IX, in 1975, the year of the first Cola Wars, was largely a defensive game. The first half's only score was a safety. The only other scores were one touchdown in the third quarter and two in the fourth, making the 16-10 final the second-lowest in all of Super Bowl history.
But if next year's game's decided early, viewers' attention may wander, and the fourth quarter may be too late for Birnbaum to go on the offensive. Even if, as he hopes, "Fox will be a little more courageous than CBS" with his one, as yet nonexistent, commercial, it may end up airing too late to make either an impression or a difference – to say nothing of a disruption.