The spot:"What's G?" asks a disembodied voice. The voice, familiar to hip-hop fans as that of rapper Lil Wayne, proceeds to explain that "G" is "gifted," "glorious," "golden," and also "the emblem of a warrior." As he speaks, a series of athletes, shot in black and white, scroll across the screen. Several are instantly recognizable (Muhammad Ali, Derek Jeter); others are harder to place. The last individuals to appear on screen are a troupe of masked dancers. A large "G" appears on screen. "That's G," the voice concludes.
(Click here to view an alternate version of the ad.)
In case you are still confused, the G in this ad stands for "Gatorade." The ad first aired Jan. 1 during the Rose Bowl. No indication was given as to what it was advertising, leaving viewers to ponder the possibilities. It wasn't until the Super Bowl that Gatorade officially revealed that G is the new face of its product. The monthlong mystery was designed to generate buzz for a major rebranding effort, now under way. Pick up a bottle of Gatorade Frost Glacier Freeze (i.e., blue) and you'll notice the familiar "Gatorade" logo has been pushed aside by a large, stylized G. Several products have also been renamed. If, like me, your Gatorade purchases tend to occur in the aftermath of a dehydrating night of drinking irresponsibly, rest assured—the reason you can't find the Gatorade Fierce isn't because you're still drunk. Gatorade Fierce is now called Gatorade Bring It.
Sarah Robb O'Hagan, Gatorade's chief marketing officer, explained to me that the idea behind the new look and the new ad campaign is to make the brand feel more contemporary and to appeal to the next generation of electrolyte drinkers. Do the ads pull this off?
You certainly can't accuse them of skimping on the casting budget. Gatorade has always used athletes as spokespeople, but it's never assembled so large or diverse an ensemble as this. Pretty much every corner of the sports world is represented: basketball (Dwyane Wade), baseball (Jeter), tennis (Serena Williams), golf (Tiger Woods).
But these athletes aren't working out, drinking Gatorade, and sweating blue, as they would in a Gatorade spot of yore. Nearly all of them are wearing street clothes. The effect is to add another layer of mystery to the ad: Who are these people? It's easy to recognize three-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson when he's wearing his fire suit. Put him in something more flammable and he's harder to make out.
In some ways, this guessing game works to Gatorade's advantage. Even if you don't care what G stands for, the ad tickles your curiosity: "Is that Picabo Street?" you can't help but ask yourself. "I think that's Picabo Street." Before you know it, you're running up Gatorade's YouTube numbers. Yet the diversity of the cast is also confusing. Who's that cocky little kid who shows up after Muhammad Ali? And for the love of god, who are those homicidal maniacs doing that freaky dance routine?
They are, respectively, Chaz Ortiz, a 14-year-old skateboarding phenom, and the Jabbawockeez, a hip-hop dance crew that favors Jason-style hockey masks. No knock on skateboarding or hip-hop dance, but do these guys belong in the same commercial as Bill Russell?
Ortiz and the Jabbawockeez stick out as a sop to a younger generation. So does the casting of Lil Wayne, who never appears on camera but whose croak is unmistakable. There's no gainsaying Wayne's popularity. Critics love him. The pop charts love him. The Recording Academy loves him. He also happens to be a sports nut. He blogs on ESPN.com, recently made a guest appearance on ESPN's 1st and 10, and has a tattoo of the ESPN logo on his forearm.
But just because Wayne is a sports fan doesn't mean you want Wayne in your sports drink commercial. (He's also an avowed abuser of promethazine, but you don't see him showing up in ads for Nyquil.) Recall that back in 2002, Pepsi, which owns Gatorade, unceremoniously dropped the rapper Ludacris as a spokesman after Bill O'Reilly made a fuss about his bawdy lyrics. The Lil Wayne songbook makes Luda's seem quaint by comparison. Wayne once recorded an extended apostrophe to the female sex organ in which he compared his love of cunnilingus to Cookie Monster's love of cookies.
I'm not so easily scandalized as O'Reilly, and if he'd been used differently, Wayne might have been a brave, inspired choice. (To see how a Wayne cameo can be used to great effect, see this recent Nike ad.) But Gatorade wanted him only for his voice, in the hope it would prick the ears of his young fans. Gatorade's O'Hagan told me the rapper had no input on the wording of the ads, and it shows. The script reads like the minutes of a late-afternoon brainstorming session at Gatorade HQ: What are some g-words we associate with our brand? Shout 'em out people. Gutsy. That's good. Glorious. Nice one, Renee. Emblem of a warrior. Hmm … doesn't begin with "g," but that's all right! If only Gatorade had furnished Wayne with some cough syrup, a blunt, and a bag of gummy bears and let him riff on what G is.
Squandering the talents of Lil Wayne is bad enough, but Gatorade also hired Spike Lee—who's created great sports ads before, for Nike—without getting much to show for it. The look and feel of the G ads feels borrowed from will.i.am's "Yes We Can" video—unnamed celebrities filmed in black and white against a black backdrop. Lee's direction fails to unify what in the end feels like a hodgepodge. It's as if Gatorade execs had thrown everything they'd read was cool these days into a pot and stirred. Viral campaign: check. Hip-hop dance crew: check. Lil Wayne: check. Barack Obama: check.
This undisciplined approach is particularly surprising given the source. Gatorade ads haven't always been pathbreaking works of invention, but they've gotten their point across. You have to admire the simplicity of the "Be like Mike" campaign—does a pitch get more straightforward than that? Even the more recent ads featuring athletes sweating Gatorade, while somewhat gross, were memorable and appealed to the product's core consumer: athletes.
Gatorade has recently lost some market share to Coca-Cola's Powerade, but I blame vitaminwater for having inspired Gatorade's muddled approach in this campaign. Vitaminwater, also owned by Coca-Cola, has gone after the sports crowd by signing up fan-favorite athletes to star in quirky commercials. But it's also found flavored-water drinkers in places Gatorade hadn't thought to look: It's courted health-conscious bohemians by spiking its beverages with guarana and taurine; it's appealed to hip-hoppers by making the rapper 50 Cent not just a spokesman but also a minority owner. Gatorade remains dominant in the sports world—players don't give coaches a "b-relaxed" bath after a big win—but seems jealous of vitaminwater's success with a broader market.
Grade: C- Alas, the campaign looks like it's headed downhill from here. Phase 2 has just rolled out, and while it's similarly star-studded, it's also similarly misguided: an homage to Monty Python and the Holy Grail starring Kevin Garnett and Usain Bolt in chainmail, with another appearance by the Jabbawockeez (whose time doesn't seem to be in great demand). The loopy tone of the new ads couldn't be more different than the ponderous one of the teaser spots. My advice to Gatorade's marketing team: Go back to the simple message that your drink is the best way to rehydrate after a workout. And maybe chug a Gatorade Tiger Focus (formerly Gatorade Tiger) before your next strategy session.