William H. Macy has spent hours playing characters in such TV and film works as “Shameless,” “Fargo,” “The Cooler” and “State and Main.” He appears for just seconds as a surprisingly resourceful janitor in a commercial for Pepsi.
Sometimes, the actor says, advertisements can have just as much power as programming.
In a 60-second spot that aired Sunday during NBC’s presentation of the Golden Globes, Macy plays a savvy working man who appears to thwart an intergalactic invasion by offering alien interlopers a bottle of Pepsi. “I’m a fan of commercials,” the actor says in an interview with Variety, noting that doing voice-over work once gave him enough financial freedom to act in Chicago and off-Broadway. “I’ve seen a commercial do more in 60 seconds than a film has done in two hours.”
Pepsi is betting that Macy’s advertising philosophy resounds with consumers in 2019. The beverage giant, a regular sponsor of big sporting events and TV moments, not to mention the Super Bowl, plans to put more emphasis on commercials meant to entertain big audiences, according to Todd Kaplan, vice president of marketing for colas at the company – so entertaining, executives hope, that viewers will forget the commercial isn’t the exact thing they tuned in for in the first place.
“These days, entertainment can come in any form or any format. Entertainment is short-form, long-form, online, on your phone, on air. And so we can’t think of it as a linear TV spot. You definitely don’t want to be in a situation where it feels like you’re interrupting something,” Kaplan says. “You want to create entertainment and something people want to look for and lean into. We built a great piece of content that stands on its own.” Pepsi will not show the Macy ad on TV after its Golden Globes moment, he says, making it available online instead for consumers to find on their own (with some digital enticements).
With its reliance on a top actor, glitzy effects and a plotline out of a summer movie, the Pepsi ad could have appeared in the Super Bowl. And thinking about commercials in that vein – tailored to a specific event or moments – may be what it takes to make ads appeal to a consumer base increasingly able to watch programming without “a word from our sponsor.” Amazon and Netflix do not inject ad breaks into their streaming programming. Hulu offers a higher-priced subscription that makes viewing ad free. Other services are emulating the notion: AMC Networks’ flagship AMC offers cable subscribers a chance to watch its shows without commercials for an extra fee.
“This is not to launch a campaign,” says Kaplan. “We wanted to put out an interesting piece of content first.” He expects Pepsi to launch similar pieces throughout the year “focused on the enjoyment around consumer drinking.”
To be sure, there’s no guarantee even the most ambitious soda ad will make a splash. Pepsi has a lot of experience, however, making commercials that get people talking, many of them using top pop-cultural figures ranging from Britney Spears to Cindy Crawford. Any big marketing push would take place in an environment more challenging than the era when Pepsi and its main competitor, Coca-Cola, gained massive traction among consumers. In 2017, volume of carbonated soft drinks sold in the U.S. fell 1.3%, according to Beverage Digest, while bottled water volume sold rose 2.5%.
Key to the Pepsi’s initial 2019 effort is Macy’s work. He must win audiences over in just a few ticks of the clock, or all is lost. “We talked a lot about the plot, not only the little bit of back story about this alien spaceship, and this headquarters they have set up, but what it all meant,” the actor recounts. “Together, I guess, we sort of formulated this character: This was the janitor who is mightily unimpressed by all this technology to find out what the ship wants. He’s a simple guy. It’s the old adage: They’ve missed the forest for the trees. They have too much schooling. They don’t know what they’re doing when it’s right there in their hand.”
Appearing in a big ad campaign was once “verboten” for U.S. actors, who would hawk beer overseas but never on home shores, Macy says. But something has changed in recent years, and audiences have grown accustomed to seeing everyone from Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Garner to Samuel L. Jackson and Anna Kendrick making pitches for Capital One, Neutrogena and Hilton. “There’s no harm, no foul, to anybody doing a commercial,” he adds.
He thinks viewers will be impressed to his Pepsi debut. “Our commercial is big, and I think what’s so surprising is that they made so much out of so little,” he says. “They spent a lot of money on the commercial, but the way it looks on film it should have cost twenty times more.”