An Aha moment — down nostalgia lane with Lehar Pepsi

Mehernosh Shapoorjee | Updated on: Jul 11, 2022
Starstruck: The ‘Kapil is coming’ campaign gave fans a chance to meet their idol

Starstruck: The ‘Kapil is coming’ campaign gave fans a chance to meet their idol

As the cola account shifts to a new agency after 30 years, flashback to its early campaigns in India

I recently read that PepsiCo India was moving its advertising business from WPP’s Wunderman Thompson, to Publicis Groupe’s Leo Burnett, which was once the agency for Coca-Cola. Irony aside, the news triggered memories of Pepsi’s launch advertising in India, and my tiny role in it.

Honestly, I didn’t even know that Pepsi existed, until I joined advertising in 1989. Coca-Cola was part of my childhood in the 1970s, Thums Up was part of my teenage in the 1980s, and other brands like Campa Cola, Thrill, and Double Seven, appeared and disappeared over time.

I first learned of Pepsi’s existence through showcase reels that ad agencies bought for teams to see what was happening in advertising around the world. Pepsi ads stood out as they (a) used celebrities interestingly (especially Michael Jackson), and (b) took pot-shots at Coke regularly.

As I watched many great Pepsi ads (way better than Coke ads then), I never imagined I’d be writing ads for the brand, just over a year later!

Hindustan Thompson Associates (HTA, now Wunderman Thompson) was the advertising agency that launched Lehar Pepsi in India, with the country’s first-ever 90 seconds television commercial (TVC). The TVC featured singer and youth icon Remo Fernandes, and Bollywood actor Juhi Chawla, who together reflected Pepsi’s “Choice of a New Generation”.

I joined HTA as a junior copywriter in the same year, with no TVC experience. So, when I was told that I’d work with US-returned hotshot Creative Director Abhinav Dhar on Pepsi, I was excited but sceptical. “I’ll probably assist senior copywriters, and maybe one day I will present my own ideas…” I thought.

I was wrong. Pepsi’s focus on “the new generation” was not just a claim, but a belief that seeped into its work culture, and influenced the teams at HTA.

HTA’s work on Pepsi was not driven by hierarchy, but by meritocracy. The leadership at HTA which included Abhinav Dhar, Colvyn Harris, Alex Kuruvilla, and the late Shankar Rajan, gave everyone in the team a chance to come up with ideas on every brief. Decision makers at Pepsi, which included Ravi Dhariwal, Sanjeev Chadha, Neel Chatterjee, and Vibha Rishi, focused on evaluating what was presented, not on who was presenting it. As a result, even as a junior copywriter, I found myself deeply involved in all the creatives for Lehar Pepsi, often seeing my ideas appear as ads in print or on television.

However, I think there was an unwritten mandate from Pepsi’s global advertising agency, that thematic ads in India could only be adaptions of international Pepsi TVCs. I remember questioning this, and Sanjeev Bhargava, the Account Supervisor saying “ Yaar, original film  nahin bana sakte toh kya hua, we can get creative in print!”

Print advertising was still very big back then, and we took full advantage of the abundant opportunities it presented, with “unexpected, but simple” creatives.

For example, when Lehar Pepsi was to be launched in Bombay (now Mumbai), I remembered that NASA had sent a can of Pepsi into space on a mission with astronauts. So, art director Kishore Vij designed an ad with a Pepsi lying on the surface of the moon. The headline, next to planet earth, read “Lehar Pepsi, now also in Mumbai.”

Moon trip: Bringing Pepsi to Mumbai 

Moon trip: Bringing Pepsi to Mumbai 

For Delhi, our “Kapil is Coming” campaign gave the cricket superstar’s fans a chance to meet him in their own homes, if they offered to share a Lehar Pepsi with him! The invites poured in, many bottles of Lehar Pepsi were bought and shared, and photos of the visits were published in newspaper ads, adding to the excitement.

Here I must digress and share an anecdote about how when we first began working on Pepsi creatives, Lehar Pepsi had not yet been launched in Delhi, where our office was, so most of us had not even tasted it. For one shoot, we got a bottle of Pepsi and filled it with a dark liquid resembling a cola. On the morning of the shoot, we came into the office to discover someone had opened the bottle and it was now empty. We assumed that someone had assumed it was Pepsi and tried to drink it!  (I can only imagine the distaste someone would have unknowingly felt.)

On the film front we kept pushing the boundaries of what we could do. The first “ Yeh hi hai right choice baby…” film was a beautiful adaptation of Robert Palmer’s famous music video and international Pepsi ad.

Our value-add was child prodigy pianist Penny Vaz and her interactions with Remo, that added likeability and memorability to the films.

The second film in the series was an India original, and audacious for a new brand to showcase people all over the country chanting  “Yeh hi hai right choice baby, aha!”

Before he went on to make Coke famous in India, Aamir Khan, in 1993, played the pivotal role in a significant Lehar Pepsi ad. Director Prahlad Kakkar replicated an international Diet Pepsi TVC featuring Michael J Fox frame by frame, and then made it better by casting Aishwarya Rai as Sanju/Sanjana. I like to believe that I chose Mahima Chaudhry as Aamir’s “new neighbour”, and everyone at HTA and Pepsi agreed.

My time with Pepsi came to an end in 1993 when I left HTA. Abhinav Dhar also left the agency a short while later. And with that came to end our contribution to bringing Lehar Pepsi to the lips of millions of Indians across the country.

Mehernosh Shapoorjee is a Strategic Communications Consultant and Conflict Resolution Professional. 

Published on July 10, 2022
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