Obama: the Pepsi candidate.

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Aug. 21 2008 6:56 AM

Obama: the Pepsi Candidate

The Democratic presidential nominee and the soft drink have strong affinities.

Pepsi Logo (R), Obama Campaign Logo (L)

It is oddly fitting that the convention that will give Barack Obama the Democratic nomination for president will take place in Denver's Pepsi Center. During the primaries, some bloggers argued that Obama's insurgent campaign made him Pepsi to Hillary's establishment Coke. An eagle-eyed observer (who happens to work for Pepsi's P.R. firm) noticed that during the primary debates, Obama could be seen refreshing himself with Aquafina water—a Pepsi brand—while Hillary Clinton drank Coke's Dasani. In addition, Wonkette and others have noted that the round "Obama '08" logo is similar to the red and blue yin-yang-like symbol that Pepsi-Cola has used since 1991.

Of course, the connection between Obama and Pepsi is largely accidental. In early 2006, when Denver began lobbying the Democratic National Committee to host the convention, very few would have predicted that Obama would be the nominee. And PepsiCo Inc., the $40-billion-a-year food conglomerate headquartered in Purchase, N.Y., does not manage Denver's Pepsi Center; it bought the arena's naming rights for 20 years in 1999.

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But while the connection may be arbitrary, the Obama-Pepsi affinity is strong. Last month, when Obama assembled a team of financial heavyweights for a summit to discuss economic issues, one of the most prominent corporate leaders in attendance was Indra Nooyi, the Pepsi CEO whose Indian heritage makes her, like Obama, one of the few nonwhites to reach the highest levels of power in her profession. Although Nooyi hasn't endorsed Obama—few CEOs make explicit endorsements—it's hard to imagine that she doesn't support him; she and her husband gave $27,000 to John Kerry's campaign in 2004. (A spokeswoman says that no comparable appearance with John McCain has been scheduled, though she's not aware of any Nooyi donation to Obama.) According to the database operated by the Center for Responsive Politics, Pepsi employees have given $39,700 to Obama's campaign, compared with a meager $6,000 from Coca-Cola employees.

Perhaps more significant, the prevailing theme of Obama's campaign meshes well with Pepsi's corporate messaging. Pepsi's marketing has for decades tried to exude youthful energy, from the early '60s attempts to adopt baby boomers as the "Pepsi generation" to the '90s fantasy commercials depicting Pepsi as a veritable soda fountain of youth, transforming nursing-home residents into skateboarders. Pepsi's advertising slogan not too long ago was "The Choice of a New Generation," which could almost be Obama's. Certainly his strategy in the general election, as it did in the primaries, will rely on youth support that is almost as fanatical and fantastic as the fictional version in Pepsi's ads.

Actually, Pepsi's appeal to the young has a corporate rationale and goes back to the beginning of its modern history. (After a bankruptcy, the company was reborn in the 1930s.) In order to build market share against the incumbent Coca-Cola and smaller rivals, Pepsi offered 12 ounces of cola for a nickel—6-ounce bottles were the standard at the time—and held fast to the 5-cent price for several years even as rising sugar prices during and after World War II compelled others to go to 6 cents and more. (This was the origin of Pepsi's renowned jingle: "Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/ Twelve full ounces, that's a lot.") As a result, Pepsi's customer base skewed very young.

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