COLLEGE PARK – University of Maryland officials said they are disappointed with a recent national ad for the soft drink Pepsi One that spoofs the college’s students engaging in stereotypical fraternity drinking activities, using the cola instead of alcohol.
Yet, the university gave the soft-drink maker permission to film on campus without retaining any control over the content of the commercial. In the ad, part of a five-spot campaign tied to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a male student chugs a can of Pepsi One as his comrades crowd around and cheer him on. Then a different student finishes a can of Pepsi and says to the announcer, “Yes sir, may I have another please?” as if participating in a fraternity initiation ritual.
Terry Flannery, director of university marketing, said the ad emphasizes inaccurate stereotypes about the university’s Greek system and presents an unrealistic picture of university life.
“We’re sorry if it was interpreted that way, but that was never our intention,” said Dave DeCecco, a spokesman for Pepsi.
The University of Maryland has had past problems with alcohol on campus. There have been no recent binge drinking fatalities, but the death of a student at Frostburg State in 1996 and the near-death of a student at Western Maryland College in 1998 brought the issue close to home.
Fraternity rush at College Park was moved from the fall semester to the spring semester for new students last year partially to keep entering students away from a culture that can encourage drinking. And underage drinking on campus can result in penalties as severe as expulsion.
The university gave Pepsi initial permission to film the ad on campus but had no control over the final product, Flannery said.
Maryland signed a 15-year, $58 million contract with Pepsi last year, agreeing to sell and advertise the company’s soft drinks and snack products almost exclusively in on-campus eateries, stores and vending machines.
DeCecco said the company approached the university with the ad idea because of this existing relationship and because the Maryland men’s basketball team was a second seed in the NCAA tournament. Maryland received no compensation for the ad.
Pepsi also filmed ads at the University of Arizona and the University of Cincinnati, two other Pepsi schools that earned high seeds in the NCAA tournament. The Cincinnati ad features students funneling Pepsi One into a prone student’s mouth, also simulating a college drinking practice.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s national president, Karolyn V. Nunnallee, said in a written statement that the organization has not seen the ads and cannot comment specifically. However, she condemned any ad that makes light of underage or binge drinking.
The commercials were not scripted, said Pepsi’s DeCecco. The company sent representatives to campus a few days before filming to post flyers and find students to participate in the commercials. But once MTV comedian Tom Green, the host of the ad series, arrived on campus, he was allowed to improvise the content of the commercial, DeCecco said.
Pepsi filmed at several locations on campus, including inside Cole Field House and various classrooms, Flannery said. But the commercial consists almost entirely of male students partying on the sidewalk outside of campus buildings.
“They really filmed in locations we thought were better,” Flannery said.
Flannery subsequently tried to pressure the ad agency working on the commercial, BBDO of Manhattan, not to run footage reinforcing negative stereotypes about the university. But she had no formal control over content after the university granted Pepsi initial permission to film on campus. Flannery said the ad will not affect the university’s future relations with Pepsi.
Flannery said that despite her concerns over the ad, she is pleased with the exposure it brought the university.
University President C. Daniel Mote was unavailable for comment on the ad, because he was traveling outside the country during the school’s spring break.
“(Pepsi) would never do anything to upset the University of Maryland,” DeCecco said, citing the contract his company signed with the university.
Mote’s predecessor, William E. “Brit” Kirwan, signed the deal with Pepsi early in 1998 in an effort to boost revenue for the school. Pepsi gave Maryland $8 million up front, $4.8 million of which went to pay off the school’s athletic debt and the rest of which went to the school’s need-based scholarship fund. In return, Maryland agreed to almost exclusively sell and advertise Pepsi products, including Frito-Lay snack foods. This move angered longtime business partners like the Maryland-based Utz snack company, which saw its products and advertisements replaced by Frito-Lay counterparts.
Maryland is not alone among area universities. Georgetown University and George Washington University have soft drink deals, and Johns Hopkins University has an exclusive vending machine deal with Pepsi. Before he left for Ohio State University, Kirwan defended his decision to sign the contract, telling the Baltimore Sun he worried about tainting the university’s image, but he argued that soft drink deals are now a common source of revenue for outstanding universities. -30-