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Pepsi Listens to Employees, Airs 60 Seconds of Silence
 

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR  1/31/2008
 

A 1-minute Super Bowl ad costs several million dollars. So what would prompt PepsiCo to purchase such a slot for the February 2008 game to be aired without sound? The answer: a small number of innovative employees.

The spot was created by—and features—PepsiCo employees who are members of EnAble, an employee networking group whose mission is to promote a more inclusive environment for people with disabilities. Slated to air during the Super Bowl pre-game show on the Fox network, the commercial shows Pepsi-Cola and Lay’s Potato Chips, but its real mission is to bring awareness of the American deaf community to a wider audience.

The commercial opens with two friends driving together to watch a football game at a friend’s house. They stop on a suburban street where all the houses are dark, unsure as to which house belongs to their friend Bob.

Communicating in American Sign Language (ASL), the two friends begin blaming each other for not remembering Bob’s house number, when the driver suddenly has an idea. He begins honking the horn repeatedly as he slowly drives down the block. Lights flash on in all the houses except Bob’s, which is the only house undisturbed by the noise.

A small number of PepsiCo employees, each with a personal connection to the deaf community, set off to create a commercial with a deaf focus and broad appeal. Despite little experience in advertising, the group came up with the concept, wrote the script and acted it out, sharing a demo tape with their colleagues. The tape generated internal buzz and quickly gained support from PepsiCo senior management, who immediately saw the commercial’s potential and decided it needed a big stage—Super Bowl Sunday.

Crafting a great Super Bowl ad is a daunting task. In early 2006 USA Today published a list of 10 tips to make Super Bowl ads “magical.” Ninth on the list was “reflect diversity—smartly.”

“Diversity without stereotyping ranks among the most difficult concepts to pull off in a Super Bowl ad,” USA Today writer Bruce Horovitz said. Case in point—an ad by shoe retailer Just for Feet whose 1999 Super Bowl ad showed white hunters in Africa forcing a barefoot black runner into Nikes. The company, which closed in 2004, reportedly sued its ad agency for $10 million before dropping the lawsuit.

PepsiCo’s risk may be well worth the effort. “Any time I tell someone that people with disabilities are the largest minority market in the U.S., surpassing the Hispanic market by 5 percent, their mouths drop open,” says Nadine Vogel, president of Springboard Consulting LLC and expert on communicating with the special needs community. “People need time to grasp what that really means.”

Having an employee networking group for employees with disabilities makes a difference when companies want to tap into this large customer base, Vogel says. But such groups can’t just exist in name only, she cautions. In order to benefit from such a group as PepsiCo has, business leaders must seek group members’ input actively on ways to impact business goals and objectives.

The payoff can be significant when companies invest the time and energy to do so. “The outpouring of support for this ad, both internally and externally, has been overwhelming,” said Clay Broussard, PepsiCo employee and project lead on the “Bob’s House” ad, in a press release. “By bringing the world an ad performed by deaf employees in ASL, we feel like we’ve already scored the upset on Super Bowl Sunday.”

Broussard appears in the commercial along with PepsiCo colleagues Sheri Christianson, Darren Therriault and Brian Dowling. PepsiCo also consulted with the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) to ensure that the message was on target.

Vogel praised PepsiCo’s use of real people with disabilities, as opposed to actors, in the ad. She says there is long-standing criticism within the disability community against the use of stock photos and able-bodied actors in advertising rather than people who actually have disabilities.

“I think the fact they are using employees is bold,” Vogel says. “It speaks volumes that their employees are representative of their customers.”

But the commercial also sends an important message about people with disabilities, she adds, which is that they are regular people who have money and want to buy products.

PepsiCo will also sponsor the closed captioning of Fox’s entire Super Bowl broadcast.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is manager of SHRM Online’s Diversity Focus Area.

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