Ray Rowlands of Drinksinfo Ltd reports on the recent controversy surrounding the SodaStream Super Bowl advert in the US and asks, who really gained from its rejection by the media?

They say that there is no such thing as bad publicity and the proposed Sodastream Super Bowl advert certainly caught the headlines. Ahead of the match last weekend, the closing remark in the promotional video by Scarlett Johansson, the brand‘s ambassador, caused a massive hoo-ha last week.

For those less active theatre-goers, Scarlett Johansson is an actress best known for her work in films like Lost in Translation, The Avengers and Hitchcock. Until her link-up with SodaStream, announced last month, she was also an ambassador for the charity Oxfam. She had to quit that role over her support for the Israeli-based drinks company, but that’s another story.

The thing that caused all the fuss in the Super Bowl video was Scarlett’s closing comment “Sorry, Coke and Pepsi”. It was this that got the original advert reportedly rejected by the Fox network, which telecasts the event in the US. A revised version of the advert now has Johansson concluding with the phrase “I just love helping people”. But hey, shock horror, a potential dig against two of the world’s largest soft drinks companies. Such a controversial remark as appeared in the first advert might well have utterly destroyed these two giants and spiralled us into yet another global economic collapse, I don’t think. 

Fox was no doubt trying to protect its relationship with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo which both spend a lot of money in promotions and the network obviously wants to maintain its share of the pot. But, can Fox seriously believe that Coca-Cola Co or PepsiCo would be so small-minded as to be outraged by this tongue-in-cheek competitive banter from a smaller rival? Moreover, the jibe was very subtle, certainly more so than the Israel company’s previously banned Super Bowl advert in 2013. This also took a witty swipe at the Coke and Pepsi brands, but additionally highlighted the environmental advantage of SodaStream in respect of packaging waste.

SodaStream generates less bottle waste with its reusable canisters. The company is regularly quick to emphasise its green credentials and the company’s CEO, Daniel Birnbaum, is what has been described as a self-styled abolitionist of the bottle- and can-based beverage industry.

Fox has set something of a precedent now. What is to stop major advertisers in other industries calling for similar bans on their competitors? In an ideal world, media companies should act in an unbiased capacity and leave the outcome to market forces. And, really, if Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, or any other company, feels intimidated by a competitor’s adverts they are quite at liberty to launch campaigns of their own to neutralise the threat.

Thinking about it, that would actually be in Fox’s interest. It would add even more cash to their coffers.

Yet, it isn’t as though Sodastream’s dig at its competitors is so unique. PepsiCo, for one, has long involved its Atlanta-based arch rival in its adverts. Take the recent example of its enlisting of Santa Claus, an unofficial Coca-Cola symbol for many years. (It is often said that Santa's red robes were actually a Coca-Cola creation). In the US commercial, Santa chooses a Pepsi over a Coke because he is “on vacation”.

So, why is it okay for PepsiCo to take a humorous poke at a rival but not an up-and-coming player like SodaStream?

I say up-and-coming but, of course, SodaStream has been around for some time. Its origins date back to the turn of the 19th Century when Guy Gilbey of the UK-based gin family is said to have invented the first soda water dispensing machine. Sodastream’s initial heyday was probably the 1970s and 1980s, when “getting busy with the fizzy” was as popular as power dressing. 

Harder times followed and, after various changes in ownership (including Cadbury Schweppes no less), SodaStream was acquired by Israeli-based Soda Club in 1998. But, the real watershed for the company in recent years came in 2007 when Fortissimo Capital, the Israeli private equity investment group, acquired Soda Club and Birnbaum was made CEO of SodaStream.

The company's global unit sales reportedly grew from 700,000 to almost 2m between 2007 and 2010. Today, according to the company website, the brand is available in over 40 countries and sells 600m litres a year. That is pretty impressive but its sales are still only a fraction of the 80bn litres of soda sold each year by Coca-Cola or the 30bn litres supplied by PepsiCo. So again, SodaStream poses no immediate threat to the two mega players.

But, Sodastream’s growing popularity cannot be denied: Alongside the likes of Evian, Innocent Drinks and Perrier, it was awarded CoolBrands accreditation in the UK in both 2012/13 and 2013/2014.

Brands were evaluated by their authenticity, desirability, innovation, originality, style and uniqueness and selected by a panel of style bloggers, designers, artists, TV personalities, actors, and media researchers. Coke and Pepsi were not selected.

When all is said and done, the rejection of the original advert has actually worked in SodaStream’s favour. According to media reports, within hours of the announcement more than 1.8m people viewed the video on YouTube. By yesterday (3 February), that number was 9.8m and rising.

So, the ban has very possibly made the advert even more powerful than it might otherwise have been. In the end, it seems, SodaStream is the winner after all.