The Spot:Football star Brian Urlacher and baseball star David Ortiz have somehow entered an international badminton competition. Ortiz takes a quick swig of vitaminwater before taking the court for match point. In the ensuing action, he bashes the shuttlecock so violently that it lodges in the shin bone of his opponent. "Vitaminwater! Try it!" shouts the announcer.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.
I am helpless to resist the charms of this ad, as it features Red Sox slugger David Ortiz—the sofa-shaped designated hitter who is among my favorite athletes of all time. But the spot is also well executed in its own right. It's got great production values (they've faithfully captured the glittering world of high-stakes badminton) and a chuckle-inducing finish (after we see the birdie penetrate that poor fellow's tibia, we cut to another vanquished foe on the sidelines—a guy with a patch over his eye—who apparently fell victim to an earlier Ortiz smash).
This is vitaminwater's first television campaign. (By the way, the company requested we call it vitaminwater;I don't like to kowtow to corporate punctuation demands, but Slate's copy desk overruled me.) Previously—judging only on the basis of its packaging, name, ingredients, and the people I'd noticed drinking it—I'd always thought of vitaminwater as a somewhat frou-frou beverage. The hip thing to sip after a Pilates workout, if you're not sipping Evian. When I saw this ad with Urlacher and Ortiz, I assumed it was an effort to rebrand the drink—shifting it toward the jockier realm of team sports and positioning it as an alternative to Gatorade.
Then I saw a second spot with former American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson. It shows her on a fictional European talk show, playing a guitar. When she sips her vitaminwater, the host mentions that it can help improve focus and concentration. Like the badminton ad, this spot features a celebrity and a sight gag (an angry cobra bites the host), but the Clarkson spot makes no reference whatsoever to sports or exercise. In another ad, rapper 50 Cent conducts a symphony after drawing strength from a bottle of vitaminwater. Again, the ad departs totally from the world of athletics. Which confused me—who exactly is this drink supposed to be for?
According to Rohan Oza, vitaminwater's senior vice president of marketing, the answer is: everybody. "There's no age group. It's 8 to 80. And there's no particular psychographic. It's just anyone looking for a healthy drink."
I can see how this blanket approach would work if vitaminwater were looking to compete with Poland Spring and Aquafina. We all drink water and on all sorts of occasions. It's a natural next step to push us toward water that's got a little flavor and some vitamins mixed in. Value added!
But I don't think this one-size-fits-all strategy will work if vitaminwater wants to steal share from the big sports drinks. And there's clearly an effort in that direction, as the TV campaign features ads with Ortiz, Urlacher, NBA star Tracy McGrady, and NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne. I've also seen vitaminwater show up in MLB dugouts, which I doubt happens by accident. (Last week, an ESPN camera caught Alex Rodriguez drinking vitaminwater during a Yankees game, which might be viewed as either a coup or a death knell for the brand—depending on how you feel about socially maladjusted adulterers who display poor sportsmanship and always choke when the game's on the line.)
Gatorade has done well with jocks by emphasizing its hard-core research into which balance of ingredients best replenishes the athlete. At least one ad showed star athletes on treadmills, hooked up to electrodes as scientists observed them. At all times, Gatorade's brand image is about excelling on the playing field and finding the will to win. It never deviates from this message, which bolsters its credibility. If you're a jock-y high-school kid choosing a drink to buy after baseball practice, do you want the one that Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning endorse? Or the one that Kelly Clarkson and 50 Cent endorse? The merest whiff of a girly or nonsport vibe can kill a brand for this kind of consumer. You'd never see Gatorade make an ad with a nonathlete celebrity.
Glacéau, the company that makes vitaminwater, was recently bought by Coca-Cola for $4.1 billion. The purchase is part of Coke's ongoing struggle to find a toehold in the noncarbonated sector. Carbonated soft drinks—or CSDs, in the industry parlance—have long been on the downswing, as the global population ages and becomes more health-conscious. (You don't see many 60-year-olds, or yoga enthusiasts, glugging Cokes and Fantas.) Coke was late in getting rolling with Dasani, its bottled-water answer to Pepsi's Aquafina, and was foiled again when it made an aborted attempt to buy Gatorade, only to see Pepsi sweep in and close the deal. Glacéau has had triple-digit growth for the last three years running and gives Coke an instant winner in the booming "enhanced water" category.
Back in 2002, when I wrote a story about Coke's then-nascent noncarbonated efforts, Coke marketers told me their model was Coke's very successful Japanese operation, which had designed noncarbonated drinks catering to every sector of Japanese society. There was a flavored milk substitute drink for children, something called "salad water" that was chocked with nutrients, a drink that supposedly boosted a woman's bust size, and, of course, various sports drinks. The key, I felt at the time, was the extreme specialization. Each drink was targeted at a highly specific niche.
Now vitaminwater seems to be taking the opposite tack. Can it be all things to all people? That remains to be seen. Of course, I'm sold: I'll drink whatever Big Papi tells me to.
Grade: B. The ads are entertaining and appealing. And the Ortiz/Urlacher badminton spot touches on one of my favorite barstool conversations: What if famous pro athletes tried their hand at different sports than the ones they've become known for? Here vitaminwater takes a page from a Nike ad I enjoyed a few years ago, which imagined an alternate universe in which Randy Johnson was a pro bowler and Andre Agassi played shortstop for the Red Sox. That ad strived for an inspirational vibe, while the vitaminwater ad is played for laughs. Either way, it's fun stuff for me and my fellow trans-sport dreamers.
A few housekeeping items:
In my column about the miniseries The Starter Wife, I mused that there might soon be a $100 million movie entirely underwritten by a single brand. A few readers wrote in to suggest that this had already happened, pointing me to the 1988 film Mac and Me. First off, I am eternally grateful for having this movie—considered by many the worst of all time—brought to my attention. In terms of product placement, it features an extended dance scene that takes place entirely inside a McDonald's, with a cameo from Ronald McDonald himself. Also, the aliens in the movie literally must drink Coca-Cola to live. However, I did some research, and according to an Ad Age column from that era there was in fact no quid pro quo between these brands and the film's producers. Also, there's no way the budget was anywhere near $100 million—have you seen those alien special effects?
Separately, I'd like to ask Ad Report Card readers for a favor. To help out with a new feature we're planning for Slate V (Slate's new online video magazine), please tell me your favorite television commercials of all time. You can e-mail your submissions to email@example.com.