Slate's Ad Report Card: Gatorade, Powerade Feud

Gatorade and Powerade are battling for the hearts of sports soft drink fans with television ad campaigns. But one Powerade ad, which touted that drink's lower calorie count, drew a lawsuit from Pepsi, Gatorade's parent company. Coke is the company behind Powerade. Slate contributor Seth Stevenson reports on the dispute.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And now, to the business of advertising. Seth Stevenson writes for the online magazine, Slate. And today, he tells us about an ad campaign that was taken off the air because it wasn't telling the whole truth.

Mr. SETH STEVENSON (Writer, Slate Magazine): This ad for PowerAde Option, a competitor to Gatorade, debuted during the opening rounds of March Madness. Within days, it became the subject of a lawsuit, which I'll explain in a moment, and it's now been pulled from the airways. It's really a shame the ad had to die before its time, since it's among the funnier spots to hit television in recent months.

(Soundbite of PowerAde TV ad)

We see two Amish-looking fellows at the helms of two horse-drawn carts. An Amish-looking gal stands in the road between them, then whips off her bonnet, and releases it to signal the start of a race. The horse cart, carrying ten bails of hay, rumbles ahead, while the cart loaded down with 50 bails remains stuck in place. Cut to a simple chart, showing total calories for both Gatorade, which has 50, and PowerAde Option, which has 10.

(Soundbite of PowerAde TV ad)

Unidentified Woman: (In commercial clip) Ten is less than 50. PowerAde Option, the low-calorie sports drink.

Mr. STEVENSON: The joy here is entirely in the details: the deathly serious looks on the Amish guys' faces, the fact that one of them wears a yellow wrestling helmet, while the other sports a royal blue headband, the incongruously hard-edged rock on the soundtrack.

(Soundbite of PowerAde TV ad)

Mr. STEVENSON: The Pegasus-like wings attached to the horses for no apparent reason, and, of course, the master stroke of having the Amish babe drop her bonnet like a bobby-soxer in a '50s teen-sploitation flick. And that all this happens in about seven seconds is both in impressive feat of concision and a wise tactic. The joke is hip-sloppingly simple. No doubt, the three-word pitch was simply an Amish drag race, but it's over and done before it has a chance to wear thin.

The other is directed by Aaron Ruell, a sometime actor, who most notably played Napoleon's nerdy brother, Kip, in Napoleon Dynamite.

(Soundbite of film, "Napoleon Dynamite")

Mr. AARON RUELL: (As Kip) Napoleon, don't be jealous that I've been chatting online with babes all day. Besides, we both know I'm training to become a cage fighter.

Mr. STEVENSON: Shortly after the ad began airing, Pepsi, which owns Gatorade, sued Coke, which owns PowerAde Option. Why? Because the 10 hay-bale Amish horse cart is depicted as faster than the 50 hay-bale cart, implying that athletic performance is better enhanced by ten-calorie PowerAde Option than by a 50-calorie Gatorade. As the text of the suit alleges, quote, "Indeed, the opposite is true. The calories present in Gatorade supply additional energy to working muscles, and, as a result, increase endurance and performance." End quote.

Coke quickly settled that out of court. The upshot? This ad will no longer air. I suppose, in the end, America's thirst for justice has been slaked, but America's thirst for halfway decent commercials has only been wetted. Meanwhile, America's thirst for low-calorie sports drinks makes no sense to me. They taste grody, but that's another story. I give the ad a B--points off for a misleading premise.

By the way, Aaron Ruell filmed a few other spots for this campaign, including one called Hands that we posted on Slate.com. Hands is not aired on television and probably never will. It shows two normal hands with ten fingers, next to a pair of freakishly mutated 50-fingered hands.

(Soundbite of PowerAde TV ad)

Unidentified Woman: (In commercial clip) Ten is less than fifty.

Mr. STEVENSON: I spoke with an executive at the production company, who felt that Hands would never, not in a trillion years, get approved by PowerAde for release. Those dozens of wriggling fingers are just too nauseatingly weird.

BRAND: Seth Stevenson writes the Ad Report Card column for the online magazine, Slate.

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