YOU WANT TO get up from the couch, but you can’t. It’s late Sunday evening, Jan. 28, Super Bowl XXX is almost history, and you’ve been plunked down in front of the tube for what seems like centuries. But something compels you to stay. Maybe it’s laziness. Maybe it’s the pretzels, the hoagies, the beer.
Or maybe it’s something way beyond your control. After all, consider the empires that have conspired to keep you — especially if you are an 18- to 34-year-old with a healthy disposable income — glued to the box: NBC, Diet Coke, Warner Bros. Television, International Creative Management. And, perhaps most formidable of all, the entire cast of Friends.
You, it turns out, are about to play a part in what is probably the biggest marketing event aimed specifically at Generation X since author Douglas Coupland popularized the phrase. Instead of tacking some lackluster freshman sitcom to the end of the Super Bowl, NBC is following this year’s big game with its crown jewel, Friends. Not just any episode of Friends, mind you, but a double-espresso one-hour special, studded with an appearance by Brooke Shields and cameos from (gasp!) movie stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme and Julia Roberts.
Which is all a mere showcase for the real event: the commercials.
In the breaks between all that Manhattan banter, the cast of Friends will lend their characters to the mission of selling Diet Coke — the culmination of an unusually cozy advertising campaign devised by the producers of Friends and their, um, friends at the world’s largest beverage company. How did this landmark deal, which cost somewhere between $5 million and $10 million and also boasts an extensive print campaign (including ads in Entertainment Weekly), bubble to the surface? The story reveals what happens when some of America’s most powerful institutions rally behind one simple quest: finding the magic key to the Gen X castle.
REWIND to the spring of 1995. Friends was dishing up the last cappuccino of its blockbuster first season, and its production company, Warner Bros., wanted a cute way to capitalize on the heat. (Among the craftier ideas that didn’t make the cut: a line of Friends coffee.) In July, Coke’s archenemy, Pepsi, came to Warner Bros. with a proposal to hire the cast of Friends for a long series of Pepsi ads.
It didn’t take long for word to reach Coke’s mother ship in Atlanta. ”Coca-Cola heard that we had been approached by this other company and said, ‘Oooh! We think that’s a good idea too,”’ says Barbara Brogliatti, senior vice president of publicity, promotion, and public relations for Warner Bros.
But wait. Did Coke really latch onto Pepsi’s coattails, or vice versa? Each company suggests it was the first to come up with the idea. ”There’s nothing that we do that our competitor isn’t right on our tail with,” laughs Diet Coke spokesperson Diana Garza. ”It’s like, what came first, the chicken or the egg? What really matters is who cut the deal.” Retorts Brad Shaw, a Pepsi spokesman, ”It’s just vintage Coke, following Pepsi’s lead.” Let the games begin.