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High Flyer

By Mar 01, 2005

In the post-Vietnam era, America’s military was taking it on the chin in Hollywood. Then, in May 1986, Paramount Studios released Top Gun, starring Tom Cruise.

Top Gun was the polar opposite of every war movie released in the prior decade. Far from the doomed, homicidal protagonists of The Deer Hunter (1978) or Platoon (1986), the naval aviators depicted by Cruise, Val Kilmer and Anthony Edwards were all handsome, brave and noble. The women, led by Kelly McGillis and Meg Ryan, were beautiful, intelligent and loyal. Add supersonic fighter jets, an Oscar-winning song and a subplot in which the heroes blow away attacking jets from an unnamed desert nation, and the result was a bona fide runaway hit. Top Gun generated over $177 million at the box office and ranked as the top film draw of the year.

Back in 1986, studios saw video sales as a threat to theatrical sales, so the VHS version of Top Gun wasn’t released until March 1987. With its box office record in hand, Paramount went looking for a major corporate tie-in partner to sponsor the video release. They didn’t have to look far: Pepsi was very interested in sponsoring a vehicle that packed enormous appeal to young women (Cruise, Kilmer, et. al, in cool uniforms), as well as to young men (supersonic jets, destruction and cool uniforms).

Pepsi needed the tie-in. Coca-Cola had sponsored the enormously successful 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and had received a tremendous halo effect from the multitude of medals awarded to U.S. athletes during those games. Coke had also benefited from the International Olympic Committee’s decision to shift the timing of the Winter Olympics, which resulted in the Lillehammer Olympic Games moving up to February 1986.

Pepsi had to create some buzz, and Top Gun was the vehicle with which they intended to do it.

BBD&O, Pepsi’s agency for the promotion, was to create the sizzle behind Pepsi’s sponsorship. It had a $2 million budget for in-store promotion alone (this may not sound like a lot, but according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics it would be worth over $3.3 million today, a tidy sum by any standard for promotional advertising.)

Bill Bruce was a young copywriter in 1986 when he approached Phil Dusenberry, then chairman of BBD&O North America. Bruce asked Dusenberry if he could use any help on the Pepsi account.

Dusenberry took him up on his offer; the result was the only reel any ad person would ever need to insure lifetime employment.

Bruce and the BBD&O team crafted both a 60- as well as a 30-second commercial for Pepsi, but it was the :30 that received the most play. The spot depicted a pair of jets in flight. (The privately owned A-4 and a T-3 were flown by former naval aviators for the spot.) The lead pilot is shown activating an automatic Pepsi bottle dispenser in his cockpit as the two planes streak across the sky. When the bottle sticks in its dispenser, the second plane asks the first pilot if he’s “having problems with [his] automatic refreshment system.”

“No problem,” replies the lead pilot as he pops the top on the stuck bottle and rolls the jet on its side to pour the contents of the Pepsi into his waiting cup. The next frame shows the pilot of the second plane trying to catch sight of the first plane, which by this time has maneuvered into an inverted position directly over him. The scene ends with the lead pilot knocking on the top of his plexiglass canopy with his cup of Pepsi to attract his wing man’s attention.

At this point, a voiceover announced Pepsi’s offer of a $5 rebate on a Top Gun VHS cassette when mailed with the movie proof of purchase and Pepsi proofs of purchase, together with certificates available at participating stores.

An outstanding commercial, combined with an offer on the video of the previous year’s most popular film, was too much to resist. Retailers ran ads featuring the Top Gun video with the rebate built-in to their price, resulting in deep price cuts. Many retailers were sold on featuring this $26.95 video at $16.95 with rebate, simply because of the strength of Pepsi’s considerable promotional support.

Consumers were agog. The spot drove more retail traffic than any other video promotion offered since. Initial revenue from VHS sales of Top Gun exceeded $30 million, according to Jan Sexton, VP of Adams Media Research. This made Top Gun one of the best-sellers in early video history, until 20th Century Fox’s 1990 VHS release of Home Alone, which did a whopping $185 million in initial video revenue, according to Adams. (Home Alone set its video records by riding the coattails of another monster promotional effort from Pepsi.)

With the support provided for Top Gun, Pepsi had a certain amount of leverage with Paramount. It used it to win a spot for the :60 version of Bruce’s commercial at the front end of every Top Gun video produced.

“It was the first video to ever have a commercial in it,” Bruce recalls. “Siskel and Ebert came out against this practice, but they grudgingly concluded that ‘If they all lived up to this kind of quality, at least you won’t have to fast forward through it.”

Going Beyond The Call

Top Gun was the film that made the U.S. Armed Services cool again. At the same time, the film boosted at least two other flagging brands:

Rayban Aviator Sunglasses — It’s a near certainty that no man in the history of film has done more to promote the sale of sunglasses than Tom Cruise, and he did it all for free. Rayban credits him for the renaissance of its Wayfarer line of glasses, which starred with him in the hit comedy Risky Business (1983). Today, Rayban bills the Wayfarer line as “the world’s best-selling brand of sunglasses.” A scant three years later, Cruise was filming Top Gun sporting his patented canary-eating grin and a pair of aviator-style sunglasses similar to those popularized by World War II pilots and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Once again, Rayban was the primary beneficiary of an unplanned and unsupported product placement. Be grateful that Cruise only uses his superpowers for good.

Leather Flight Jackets — While the war-surplus look was the height of fashion during the late 60s and early 70s, it ran out of steam long before the 80s. But immediately after the release of the Top Gun, it seemed every young American male between 14 and 40 was going about his daily business dressed in the hip-snugging, high-collared, leather aviator jackets worn by Cruise and his peers in the movie. Retailers ranging from L.L. Bean to Sporty’s Flight Shop to Macy’s all did a land-office business outfitting the millions of “wannabe” aces, like me.