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False Ad Friday: The Pepsi Paradox

Pepsi marketers design a commercial to fool viewers into drawing a conclusion not actually supported by the claims of the ad.

· False Ad Friday,Misleading Ads,Veeto Tips,Pepsi,Coca-Cola

This article is part of Veeto's False Ad Friday series.

About the False Ad Friday series...

False advertising can be funny, subtle, or infuriating. Even smart people get duped by misleading ads. But people who have been made aware of the tricks are less susceptible. For this reason, every Friday, as part of our False Ad Friday series, we publish notable examples of false advertising--to entertain you, make you mad, and teach you what to watch out for. That way, you can spend more time laughing at marketers' nonsense, because it won't be you falling for it.

Today's False Ad Friday example is the Pepsi taste-test campaign against Coca-Cola that led viewers of Pepsi's commercial to believe that more people preferred Pepsi.

As I'll explain, this was both true--in the specific context of Pepsi's designed experiment--and somewhat untrue--given the fact that a consumer of Pepsi or Coca-Cola would not be drinking a single sip in a sitting, but, rather, an entire can or more.

"Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test." --Malcom Gladwell

As you'll see, that difference matters. We consider this to be some form of false advertising, because we suspect that the marketers knew, or should have known, that viewers of the taste-test commercial would draw the conclusion that more people prefer drinking Pepsi in normal contexts, when, in fact, the ad only claims that more people prefer drinking Pepsi in one-sip, experimental-type contexts.

Now the false ad itself...

In the eighties, Pepsi waged a taste-test campaign against Coca-Cola.

If you were alive then, then you might remember Pepsi's simple commercial.

There would be a table setup in some public place like a grocery store. Atop the white table-cloth, there were white cups filled with dark liquid but no markings to indicate whose cola the cups contained.

Passersby were invited to do a blind taste in which they would drink and score the contents of one cup after another.

The commercial was effective for its simplicity, because, in about thirty seconds, you would see the whole story:

  • Person walks by
  • Market researcher invites person to take blind taste test
  • Person drinks from several cups
  • Then the person would say out loud which cups he preferred
  • The commercial would end with the narrator saying, "in [some place], [some percentage of] people prefer the taste of Pepsi to Coke."
pepsi commerical

This was a very effective marketing campaign.

But the reason that it was so effective is that the marketers who devised it understood that they needed to omit one key detail from the commercials: why people preferred the taste of Pepsi. Sugar--it is instant energy.

Thousands of years ago, calories were harder to come by. Not only that, but the process of obtaining calories required expending calories. Sugar, therefore, was like a cheat code in a video game, something you would have been lucky to stumble on because it gave you an unusual advantage over the normal constraints of the game.

For this reason, our bodies are biologically programmed to feel good when something sweet hits our tongues: to feel good at the "moment of discovery."

pepsi sugar content

This is what the 69 grams of sugar in a 20 oz bottle of Pepsi looks like when dumped on a table.

Quite simply, Pepsi is sweeter than Coke. Thus, in a single moment of comparison, most people thought they preferred Pepsi--and in fact, they did, in that moment.

But that does not indicate which cola these people would prefer to drink over longer periods. We're programmed to react positively to sugar in a given "moment of discovery," but after that moment of discovery, most normal people feel sick if they eat or drink too much sugar at a time.

A boost is good. A sugar high, and then crash, is not. Had Pepsi allowed the commercial to portray what might have happened over, say, a 10-minute period of drinking colas back-to-back, then the taste-test results might have favored the less sweet Coca-Cola.

Pepsi's commercial led viewers to believe that more people preferred Pepsi to Coca-Cola.

In Pepsi's defense, this was not untrue in the specific context that the commercial portrayed.

pepsi vs coke

But Pepsi marketers knew what they were doing. They realized that most viewers would not see the add and then ask, "yes, but what about people's preferences over the course of drinking an entire can or more?" This makes the ad somewhat misleading, because the marketer's ultimate goal, of course, was to influence which cola people opted to drink by the can--not to influence people's one-off sips.

This kind of ad is not lying per se, but it does seem to be misleading by design.

hg wells advertising

"Advertising is legalized lying." --H.G. Wells

Now, I'm not an expert on the taste properties of Pepsi versus Coca-Cola. I took most of the content for this article from Malcom Gladwell's 2005 book Blink and a couple internet discussions. My analysis of the falsity of Pepsi's ad is based on the stipulations of Pepsi having a one-sip advantage (due to higher sugar content) and Coca-Cola having a whole-can advantage. But, assuming those stipulations are true, then you can begin to understand why Pepsi marketers would pull this move.

At best, it's a clever ad. At worst, it's some form of false advertising.


Some ads can be really clever for how they cause viewers to draw conclusions not even supported by the claims of the ad. So pay attention to what is being claimed, and try to recognize when the advertiser is conflating a contrived context with a normal context.

Finally, here is a fun fact...

The CEO of Pepsi in the eighties was John Sculley, and the taste-test campaign was apparently his idea based on his own personal research. During the campaign, he staged a live taste-test in front of a bunch of reporters, and he was one of the taste-testers. After sipping each of the options blind, the reporters asked him which cup contained Pepsi. He guessed incorrectly. Was this a funny failure or a meta-genius move by Sculley, to send the message that Pepsi, the challenger to market-leader Coca-Cola, was indistinguishable from Coca-Cola? We'll never know.

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