The great Powerade ad you won't find on TV.

Advertising deconstructed.
March 27 2006 1:34 PM

What a Drag

The great Powerade ad you won't find on TV.

The Spot: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 10 bales of hay rumbles ahead, while the cart loaded down with 50 bales remains stuck in place. Cut to a simple chart, showing total calories for both Gatorade (50) and Powerade Option (10). "Ten is less than 50," says the announcer. "Powerade Option, the low-calorie sports drink."

Powerade: Pegasus This ad debuted last weekend 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 airwaves. 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.

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

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The joy is entirely in the details. The deathly serious (or is it deathly bored?) 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. 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 teensploitation flick. That all this happens in about seven seconds is both an impressive feat of concision and a wise tactic: The joke is head-slappingly simple ("Amish drag race" was the three-word pitch, no doubt), but it's over and done before it has a chance to wear thin.

The ad was directed by Aaron Ruell, a sometime actor who most notably played Napoleon's nerdy brother, Kip, in Napoleon Dynamite. Ruell also directed the fantastic title sequence of that film, in which the credits are written out using food. According to a press release from Über Content, the production company behind the Powerade Option ads, Ruell got his start as a still photographer—which is evident in the careful composition of these drag-race shots, and in the fact that his camera never moves, save for one quick zoom.

Last Friday afternoon, I happened to be watching March Madness—downing Yuenglings at a sports bar with a friend who'd ducked out of his law firm—when the drag-race ad came on screen. I thought it was a riot, and my friend did, too. But he immediately noticed something else. "They've got it backward," he said. "You actually want more calories when you're working out." And this is where the lawsuit comes in.

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 10-calorie Powerade Option than by 50-calorie Gatorade. As the text of the suit alleges, "Indeed, the opposite is true: the calories present in Gatorade supply additional energy to working muscles and, as a result, increase endurance and performance. Powerade Option, which contains negligible calories, cannot refuel athletes in a similar manner." (I'm taking this text from a Gatorade blog—the very existence of which stunned me. Can we trust the work of a man who writes a blog devoted solely to Gatorade? In this case, I think we can.)

Coke quickly settled out of court. The upshot: This ad will no longer air. A second ad, featuring a sneaker with 50 eyelets and tangled laces, will be modified to meet Pepsi's approval. 

I suppose, in the end, America's thirst for justice has been slaked. But America's thirst for halfway decent commercials has only been whetted. Meanwhile, America's thirst for low-calorie sports drinks makes no sense to me. They taste grody. But that's another story. 

Grade: B. Points off for a misleading premise. Really, Powerade Option should be competing not with Gatorade, but rather with Gatorade's 10-calorie sister brand: Propel. Drinks like these are more accurately termed "vitamin waters" than "sports drinks," because they don't replenish enough carbohydrates to affect athletic performance.

Powerade: Hands By the way, Ruell filmed a few other spots for this campaign, including one called "Hands" that we've posted here.   Hands has not aired on television—and probably never will. It shows two normal hands, with 10 fingers, next to a pair of freakishly mutated, 50-fingered hands. The effect is achieved through prosthetics. Apparently, Ruell came up with this idea at the last minute, during the shoot for the other spots. I spoke with an executive at Über Content 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.

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