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Sat, Mar 30, 2002 - Page 21 News List

Sassy commercials enliven soda wars in India

BATTLE OF THE ADS Coca-Cola and Pepsi are mired in a bitter advertising war in the populous nation where they use stars from cricket and the movies to pitch their drinks


A thirsty restaurant owner consumes a local soft drink in Bombay, India. Coca-Cola and Pepsi are engaged in a fierce war to grab market share in the country.


For weeks, Satvika Prabhu, 15, and her friends in the ninth grade have been agog. They cannot seem to stop talking about each new blow and counterblow in an all-out marketing war between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, fought out on television with ads, counterads and counter-counterads as the weather starts to soar into summer heat.

New salvos appear almost daily, leaving Satvika and millions of Indians like her, mainstays of the US$1.2 billion soft drink market in India, engrossed and dying for more.

"The commercials are so cool," she said.

The war started when Coca-Cola broadcast an ad featuring India's leading movie heartthrob, Aamir Khan, who endorsed Coke. The campaign happened to coincide with the news that Khan's latest blockbuster, Lagaan, was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film -- it subsequently lost to

In the ad, Khan says, "Cold drink means ..." (He uses the generic Indian slang term thanda, which means cold drink.) After that pause, he completes the sentence with an enthusiastic "Coca-Cola!"

Pepsi responded with a commercial -- conceived, shot and edited in just 24 hours -- that turned the word thanda around. In it, two beach bums, played by the popular Indian actors Rahul Khanna and Fardeen Khan, decide to take jobs in two shacks, one selling Pepsi and the other selling Coke. The Pepsi seller is overwhelmed with customers while the Coke seller stands idle.

An exchange with a young child who repeatedly buys Pepsi "for a friend" reveals that the friend is the customer-less Coke vendor, who uses "thanda" in another sense when he calls out, "Cold business means ..." and the youngster shouts, "Coca-Cola!"

Since that commercial appeared, the gloves have been off, escalating the two brands' usual rivalry to incendiary heights as customers watch in amusement.

At stake is market share in one of the fastest-growing soft drink markets in the world, and potentially one of the largest.

Coke executives are testy about Pepsi's tactics. "We make the ads, and Pepsi copies them," said Shripad Nadkarni, Coca-Cola India's vice president for marketing. "We'd rather fight in the marketplace."

His opposite number at Pepsi-Cola India, Vibha Paul Rishi, called the beach-bum ad "just a little joke" and laid out the strategy behind the company's approach. "Our basic idea is to ignite interest," Rishi said. "Our commercials are always witty and are laced with a big dose of irreverence, which our consumers love."

Both sides claim to be ahead. "We are twice as big as them in India," said Nantoo Banerjee, director of communications for Coca-Cola India, "even though they also sell potato chips and export rice and add it all to their bottom line."

For her part, Rishi said Pepsi was India's best-selling soft drink brand. She referred dismissively to the competition as "the reds."

The head-to-head conflict in previous ad campaigns has usually been a competition to land the hottest celebrities as endorsers.

Last year Pepsi had the leading film star, Shahrukh Khan, while Coke featured an up-and-coming star, Hrithik Roshan. When Indian women won both the Miss Universe and the Miss World pageants in the same year, Coke and Pepsi each signed one of the winners for TV commercials.

Both companies want to expand the consumption of soft drinks here, now seven bottles a person per year on average. They would like it to move closer to the Chinese average of 23 bottles a year, though much of the demand in both countries goes to local brands.

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