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Come Alive!

Claim:   The 'Come Alive With Pepsi!' slogan was interpreted in China as 'Pepsi Brings Your Ancestors Back From the Dead.'

UNDETERMINED

Origins:   From 1963 to 1967, "Come Alive! You're In The Pepsi Generation" was Pepsi's battle cry as the company sought to expand its market share by convincing young people that this beverage belonged to them. "Pepsi Generation" represented a major shift in how this drink was marketed, and this long-overdue gamble paid off.

Until "Pepsi Generation," the product's ads could have been characterized as underperformers. Pepsi's most successful and appealing ad campaign prior to that had been the 1939-1950 "Twice As Much For A Nickel Too" push:
Pepsi Cola hits the spot.
Twelve full ounces, that's a lot.
Twice as much for a nickel, too.
Pepsi Cola is the drink for you.

"Nickel" set up Pepsi to compete with rival Coca-Cola by stressing value, leaving Coke to clean up by laying claim to Pepsi logo cachet. Though frugal consumers did rally to Pepsi (it was, after all, twice as much cola for the same price as Coke), they were reluctant to own up to it. Pepsi was "the kitchen drink" while Coke remained "the living room" beverage, and it was not uncommon for penny-wise hostesses to furtively decant Pepsi into glasses and then hide the bottles so they could present it to guests as Coca-Cola.

Folks were buying and drinking Pepsi, but thanks to the ad campaign that positioned the drink as the cheap alternative to something better, they did not feel encouraged to admit they liked it. 1953-1961's "Be Sociable" campaign sought to overcome this stigma by featuring Pepsi in happy group activity settings so consumers would make the connection that the drink added to the fun these people were having. Though this was undoubtedly a move in the right direction, it was done at an out-of-step pace, with the characters used in the ads looking like they'd just emerged from the set of Leave It to Beaver. These folks were undeniably well-groomed, upscale, and pleasant-looking, but they came across as prim and boring. Worse, they exuded a faint air of playing at sophistication, in the same way a child does when serving imaginary tea to her teddy bears.

In this same period (1953-1961), rock and roll came to be a major influence on the lives of the young. Pepsi almost totally ignored this shift, preferring to star one clean-cut syrupy-pure group of young people after another in its ads. As a result, the youth market gave the beverage a miss, and Pepsi instead became strongly identified with young marrieds on budgets who saw themselves as striving for that Father Knows Best ideal of triumphantly entertaining the mightily-impressed neighbors at chic little cola-swilling
soirées.

The 1961-1963 "Now It's Pepsi For Those Who Think Young" campaign again tried to reshape Pepsi's stodgy image. That it was around for only two years says plenty about its lack of success.

Enter "Come Alive! You're In The Pepsi Generation." Seemingly overnight, this campaign transformed a beverage previously identified with housewifely thrift and lifeless suburbanites into something nobody would be embarrassed to be caught drinking. The ads reached out to both the young and those who thought of themselves as youthful, enveloping them in this new, happening peer group.

"Pepsi Generation" worked because it reached consumers on a number of levels. This simple slogan was an advertising gimmick with numerous complexities, and they all sold.

At the deepest level, Pepsi was holding out the promise of popularity and acceptance to those who embraced the product. The message "You're in the Pepsi Generation" offered unhesitating inclusion into this shining group for the price of a soft drink. In a world filled with charmed circles and the Beautiful People who bask within them, such an offer was sure to attract many takers worried about not fitting in.

At the simplest level, the commercials were about pep. Energy-charged young people bounced through these adverts. "Drink this," said these pitches, "and you too will have this kind of zip." The bright, bold tune of the campaign's jingle reinforced the visual promise proffered by those energetic images, and as if the message wasn't clear enough, the words to that ditty laid it all out:
There's a whole new way of livin'
Pepsi helps supply the drive.
It's got a lot to give
To those who like to live
'Cause Pepsi helps 'em come alive.
It's the Pepsi Generation
Comin' at ya,
goin' strong!

And Pepsi was "goin' strong" — thanks to "Pepsi Generation," the drink was now reaching a new market of cash-empowered youth.

It was that "helps 'em come alive" thrust of the marketing campaign that provided the focus for an enduring legend about Pepsi: When the ads were ported to China, Pepsi sales dropped precipitously because the Chinese parsed this bit as a promise that the substance would reanimate dead ancestors. This tale is repeated as revealed truth in numerous business blunder books and has made its way into innumerable news stories about Pepsi and marketing lore. The problem is, though the story has often been repeated, it has yet to be substantiated.

Most versions claim the misunderstanding centered on the "Come alive with Pepsi" slogan, which brings up the first stumbling block. "Come alive with Pepsi" was not the campaign's catch phrase; "Come alive! You're in the Pepsi generation" was. Though at first this might seem an unimportant detail to be concerned about, when dealing with matters of translation and mistranslation, every word and nuance counts. Even when read in just plain English, "Come alive with Pepsi" clearly provides far greater opportunity for someone to mistake its message for "this will raise the dead out of their graves" than does "Come alive! You're in the Pepsi generation."

Then there was the question of which portion of the Chinese audience misunderstood the slogan: speakers of Mandarin, Cantonese, or some other dialect? For such a widespread story, this detail was never pinned down — none of the accounts so far located specify a particular language. Folks are told the Chinese misinterpreted the phrase or that in Taiwan sales dropped off because of this blunder, but never is the language of the misinterpreters mentioned. Again, in the world of mistranslation and misunderstanding, such a detail is key.

Further, it wasn't always the Chinese who were fingered as the ones misparsing the phrase — some versions laid it on the Thais, others on the Germans. As a story, this marketing tale refused to stay fixed in one place.

There is also confusion over the message supposedly drawn from that slogan, with some of the popular choices being:
  • Come alive out of the grave with Pepsi.
  • Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.
  • Bring dead ancestors back from heaven.
Although these are all variations on a common theme, once again in the world of mistranslation and misunderstanding, small differences are everything. Could the same phrase be interpreted all three ways listed above? And if not, then which one was the "right" one?

Adding to the credibility of the story, however, is Pepsi's non-denial of it. Decades have slipped by during which this tale has been kited in any number of forums, yet it has gone un-Pepsi-challenged. This state of affairs would appear to confirm the basic facts of the piece (even if it still leaves us with a number of unresolved fuzzy details) except for one thing: Pepsi has also never confirmed the tale. Can their silence then truly be read as confirmation?

Also missing at this time are the contemporaneous news accounts of the "Pepsi Generation" campaign causing problems in the Chinese market. One would think that if the reaction was as reported in lore (sales dropping off markedly), such news would have made it Stateside. A downturn in sales in a major market will impact stock prices, which means even if the story were lacking the whimsy of reanimated ancestors and thus weren't of interest outside the financial community, one would still expect to see it reported in the pages of the Wall Street-driven publications.

Was some aspect of the "Pepsi Generation" campaign misunderstood in China to mean the drink would cause the dead to rise? At this point, not enough is known to take a position one way or the other. On the one hand, it's a widespread tale, vectored by any number of otherwise impeccable sources. On the other hand, confirmation of even its most basic of details is mysteriously lacking. A good skeptic would thus refrain from calling it either heads or tails at this point, choosing instead to leave the coin balanced on its edge.

By the way, since we're on the subject of translations, Pepsi-Cola's name is rendered into Chinese characters that read "100 ways to good luck." Coca-Cola has worked out its characters to mean "to allow the mouth to be able to rejoice." (Though Coca-Cola never made the marketing blunder often attributed to it of translating its name into "Bite the wax tadpole," it is true that before the beverage's formal introduction into Chinese markets, shopkeepers there came up with some wonderfully ridiculous renditions of the name, including the tadpole one.)

Barbara "mistranslation: the china syndrome" Mikkelson

Last updated:   13 May 2011

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