Pepsi Bets on TV’s ‘Cherries Wild’ to Hook Fans Who Won’t Watch Ads

Cherries Wild
Courtesy of PepsCo

After years of breaking into TV programs with commercials, Pepsi wants to get into a little show business of its own.

“Cherries Wild” represents something different for the glitzy soda marketer, which has entertained viewers for decades with ads starring Michael Jackson, Madonna and Britney Spears. The half-hour trivia game show, backed by Pepsi and Fox and se to air Sundays starting February 14, represents a tacit understanding by a major marketer that it needs new tools to reach people who might be interested in buying its beverages.

“Consumers are in control more than ever,” says Todd Kaplan, vice president of marketing at Pepsi, in an interview. “They have skip buttons. They can DVR-fast-forward. They can pay to eliminate ads with a subscription.”  As a result, he adds, “this concept of interrupting content with your message has serious limitations. As fans are consuming, they don’t want to be interrupted.”

The effort to keep the consumer engaged will no doubt offer both the network and the beverage giant new kinds of distractions – and not just the sight of host Jason Biggs or the three-story-high slot machine that stands on the “Cherries Wild” set each week.

Pepsi isn’t just a sponsor of the program. It’s a producer, and its executives were involved in everything from the set design – which includes Pepsi colors – to the shape of the buttons contestants press. As an advertiser, Pepsi monitors ratings because they determine how much it must pay to run a commercial in a particular show. As a showrunner, the ratings will help determine whether “Cherries Wild” can continue beyond its initial run.

Fox, meanwhile, is getting into business with a client who helps pay its bills. Indeed, while the network will sell ads in “Cherries Wild,” it will keep the commercial breaks free from ads from rival soft drinks, says Suzanne Sullivan, executive vice president of ad sales for Fox Entertainment – even though category exclusivity was not initially part of the deal.

Putting on a show helps get Pepsi to all kinds of new frontiers. To heighten interest in the game, Pepsi and Fox have launched a mobile app that lets viewers at home play along and vie for prizes – the better to engage customers who often are using a second device while watching TV, and often playing some sort of game, says Kaplan. Based on consumer research, the company believes its customers are eager to take a chance, and would even embrace the idea of being famous, he adds.

“The viewer will be able to play for prizes as well, which is not something we can typically pull off in a lot of our shows,” says Sullivan.

Behind the “Cherries Wild” concept is a simple desire. Pepsi is eager to sell more of its Pepsi Wild Cherry, a product that was introduced in 1988 but that still “has a lot of upside” says Kaplan, as consumers show new interest in flavored colas. Meanwhile Fox sees a chance to assemble and keep a big audience following afternoon sports broadcasts to watch its long-running Sunday animation block.

There will be nods to Pepsi within the program. Each show will have a “Pepsi Wild Moment,” during which the slot machine appears to “go haywire,” says Kaplan, and will serve as a prod for viewers to play at home.

And yes, there will still be Pepsi commercials. While Pepsi intends to work more to develop content opportunities, “let’s be clear: we create commercials and we advertiser,” says Kaplan.  I don’t see it as an either/or.”

Fox and Pepsi have worked together on other content concepts in the past, including a Pepsi-inspired storyline in the popular drama, “Empire.” Fox’s Sullivan believes these ideas may surface from time to time, but not with intense frequency. “Not everybody has got deep enough pockets to be able to do something like this,” she says