Legs McNeil was hired to write a centennial history of the soda pop company; it was never published but some amazing stories were gathered before it disappeared, including one that tied Pepsi to Watergate and another tied the soft drink to Beatlemania.
In August 1898, New Bern, North Carolina pharmacist Caleb Bradham renamed his popular soda-counter syrup “Pepsi-Cola”, launching what had been known as “Brad’s Drink” to its destiny as one of America’s favorite beverages (and foremost companies). The path to Pepsi’s success was not a direct one: two bankruptcies nearly left the brand to falter before a Depression-era candy company began bottling the cola in twelve-ounce beer bottles, offering consumers twice as much for their nickel. In 1997, Legs McNeil was hired to write a centennial history of Pepsi, creating 100 Pepsi stories that have not ever been told, until now.
Legs Goes to Pepsi-Cola
When graphic designer Bill Bonnell and I sold the Pepsi marketing people on our way of honoring the Pepsi-Cola centennial in 100 stories, we were asked for someone “cool” and with book experience to be the author. I knew of Legs McNeil through downtown friends who were in the film and music video scene. Legs had just finished Please Kill Me, and his ability to compose a salable oral history was attractive to my Pepsi marketing clients and made business sense to them—I just never told anyone that Legs’ next book was going to be an oral history of porn. The Pepsi people wanted to meet Legs and have him meet their boss before giving the final “go-ahead”.
So I drove Legs from Manhattan up to Somers, N.Y., where Pepsi-Cola marketing was then based. Here I’ve got a shaggy-haired, cigarette-smoking gangster/savant—who I don’t know—wearing leather pants and a white T-shirt, and I’m due to walk into a Pepsi-Cola corporate headquarters that then was more prim, buttoned-down, blue-suit-white-shirt-striped-tie, than even IBM or Chase Manhattan Bank. Sporting a checked caramel Barneys’ suit, dark-coffee wingtips, a white button-down Brooks Brothers shirt and a red Jerry Garcia tie, I’m thinking I’m doomed. I’m not getting this deal done.
Luckily, the “boss”, the guy who would bless or kill the book project, was an urbane, laid-back “chief marketing officer” named Brian Swette. Swette’s office was entirely different from those of his direct reports: his fluorescent lights were switched off and there was a lone MacIntosh PowerBook on his otherwise empty desk. He walked in wearing what’s now considered casual business attire–long-sleeved black polo shirt and well-styled gray slacks. Any awkwardness between Legs and Swette disappeared when Swette revealed he had been based in Central America during the Iran-Contra Affair; Legs asked a couple of questions about that gig and got Swette talking about his hanging out of a helicopter during a sudden lift-off to avoid ground fire between rival generals–a story Swette said we couldn’t use, but something that brought he and Legs together like a pair of schoolboys set to pull off a prank.On the drive back to Manhattan, Legs asked me who was going to tell these 100 stories, who did I have for him to talk to. I started describing the Pepsi people I knew, and he interrupted, saying, “I need this book to be great. I can’t be talking to corporate stiffs; I need real people. The corporate people are going to be like rock stars before a tour—saying, ‘the band’s together, playing better than ever’–or baseball players before a season–saying, ‘the team looks good; this is our year.’ We can’t have any of that crap in there; no one will care.” I knew I was in for an education.
To get the stories, Legs put a team of researchers to work and my firm’s designers found Barbara Koppleman, a legendary photo archivist, who promptly moved into our office and started showing us everything she found. That treasure trove included pictures from Pepsi marketing campaigns and long-lost images of celebrities with Pepsi bottles–Elvis, The Beatles, Hugh Hefner, Andy Warhol and the like.
Legs, meanwhile, found ways into the histories behind Koppleman’s images, and he also found other interesting and obscure stories: a roadie who only drank Pepsi and who wanted a PepsiMan tattoo (Pepsi flew him from LA to New York and we shot the tattoo session); Pepsi connections to 1930s detective novels; an Oliver North story Pepsi was okay with; and a straight-from-Madonna-explanation on how she used her quickly-pulled 1989 “Like A Prayer” Pepsi commercial to hype her new song (the legendary, award-winning music video for “Like A Prayer”, which showed Madonna kissing a black priest on a set full of burning crosses, made its MTV debut the day after her commercial aired).
There are no burning crosses in the Pepsi commercial.
PepsiCo CEO Spills on Nixon
“Did you have a role getting recording devices into the Nixon White House?” On hearing the question, former PepsiCo CEO Don Kendall exclaimed, “Who told you that!” When I said, “Deke DeLoach”—citing the deputy associate director of the FBI who served as the go-between for President Lyndon Johnson and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—Kendall smiled like he’d been waiting to tell the story for a long time.
“Deke was the one who put the recording devices in the White House; he did it for Johnson, to help him write his memoirs. Nixon wanted to know how Johnson was going to write his memoirs, and since I knew Johnson, Nixon had me ask him,” explained Kendall. “It turns out Deke, who was working for me at PepsiCo at the time, had installed a recording system in the Oval Office for Johnson, who had a button under the lip of his desk that he could push whenever he wanted to record something. I told Nixon about this and we discovered the whole system was still there intact. Haldeman [Nixon’s Chief of Staff H. R. “Bob” Haldeman] didn’t think Nixon would remember to push the button, so he made the system voice activated.”
In one short story, Kendall suddenly connected Pepsi to Watergate and the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. Legs’ interviewer Don Gilbert and I sat in the study of Kendall’s Jackson Hole ranch amazed at what we had just heard; until then, Kendall had been talking about his (and Pepsi-Cola’s involvement) in the development of NASCAR, Disneyland and Disney World, the 1964 World’s Fair and other well-known Pepsi business ventures. But now we knew for sure Kendall wasn’t holding anything back, and Gilbert went on to ask him about accompanying then-Vice President Nixon on trips to Moscow and South America; about launching a Pepsi-sponsored, State Department-backed, Louis Armstrong-led jazz tour of Africa; and about inviting Soviet leaders into his home, the latter, in Kendall’s estimation, leading to “Glasnost”, the opening up of the strict government controls that existed throughout Soviet society.
A Few More Pepsi Stories
I can’t remember what the working title for the Pepsi book was early on, but once a division of Simon & Schuster contracted to publish it, Legs’ 100 Pepsi stories became known as Pop Culture: Stories from Pepsi-Cola’s First 100 Years. Though the book was completed, it has never been released. When Swette was fired after his 1998 Super Bowl campaign fell flat with the Pepsi bottlers, many of his projects were “killed” after the new marketing chief came in; Pop Culture was one of those projects that was made to “go away”.
Now, twenty years later, it’s impossible to document all the stories Legs created because when Pop Culture was cancelled-pulled-shot-killed, all the photo artifacts, all the story research and all the final proofs of the book were sent to PepsiCo headquarters in Purchase, N.Y. The final termination agreement spelled out that no printouts were to be made; no digital files were to be saved. That was easy to assure; all the electronic files lived on one computer.
Today, that’d be harder to pull off: there’d be a development site and data files on various servers. In 1997, email was “new”, Netscape Mosaic was the Internet browser of choice and Apple was yet to take over the world with its Power Mac and its iMac; the iPhone was unimaginable magic.
In fact, there was no Google or eBay and much of our Pepsi archive came from a North Carolina-based Pepsi collector named Bob Stoddard, who was working on a centennial history of his own and who was not always so willing to share what he had. Stoddard was flummoxed by our Zelig-like approach to Pepsi’s story, and he also couldn’t believe what we were finding. An irony in all this is that Swette “landed” (corporate-speak for “got his next job”) at a small online trading company in the East Bay—yes, the company became eBay—eventually becoming a millionaire several times over. And another irony is that Stoddard’s Pepsi: 100 Years became the official Pepsi centennial history, with Kendall writing the introduction (the Stoddard book is available on Amazon today for $1.50).
Still, I remember Legs connecting Pepsi to the earliest racecar drivers; to Prohibition bootleggers; to 1940-era pin-up girls; to pop songs like “I’m A Girl Watcher”; to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita; and to everything else that made a mark in America’s consciousness—from the Berlin Wall, the Vietnam War and NASA’s Space Shuttle to James Dean, Cindy Crawford, and George Lucas’ Star Wars. Pop Culture was set to be in bookstores by mid-summer 1998; Pepsi marketing wanted to tease its release at its January 1998 Pepsi-Cola Bottlers’ Convention, so 18 stories were selected for a “blad”, a pre-publication sample book. 700-or-so blads were handed out at the convention, to favorable reviews; not as well liked were Swette’s new BBDO-produced commercials for Super Bowl XXXII.
Those commercials took Pepsi’s Swette-championed “Generation Next” advertising campaign into irreverent and edgy ground. One ad featured a pair of pirates fighting for a Pepsi, and their skeletons being found intertwined next to a full bottle of Pepsi; another featured a hipster kid with lots of rings and piercings—this was before body art and piercings became commonplace—who drinks a Pepsi only to have it pour out of him wherever he is pierced. The bottler objections led to new, expensive, last-minute advertising spots being created for that Denver Bronco-Green Bay Packers Super Bowl; Swette didn’t stay long in Somers after that and his “Generation Next” campaign went the way of “Twice As Much for a Nickel” and “Be Sociable, Have a Pepsi”.
Pepsi Cures the Beatlemania Blues
PepsiCo legal was okay with our re-printing a story from the blad–the one that connects The Beatles to Pepsi:
Victor Bockris, rock ‘n’ roll biographer, remembers how Pepsi entertained the Beatles during their first American tour:
Do you remember those little transistor radios in the shape of Pepsi vending machines? They were promotional items; I don’t know if you could buy them or not, but somehow, Paul McCartney was given one when he arrived in New York City for the Beatles’ first American tour, on February 7, 1964.
The Beatles had come to play “The Ed Sullivan Show” in New York, followed by a concert at Carnegie Hall, another one in Washington D.C., and then two more appearances on “Ed Sullivan” from Miami Beach. They were all looking forward to the tour because it was the first time any of them had been to America. But it was just too crazy!
What was interesting was that they were all naïve enough to think they were going to get to see America. No way. They couldn’t go anywhere, and when they did, there were always twenty cops around them and hundreds of screaming girls. The fans were just too crazy. John, Paul, George and Ringo couldn’t leave The Plaza Hotel. They couldn’t go out for a walk or go out sightseeing. They were literally prisoners of the mania they had created.
So the Beatles’ only link to the outside world, when they weren’t posing for pictures or playing music, was this Pepsi transistor radio in the shape of a little vending machine. It really saved them from going bonkers because it was their only form of entertainment, and Paul carried it with him everywhere.
The Beatles would call up the radio stations and ask them to play the Shangri-Las, Ronnie Spector, or a Motown group, and then they’d sit around their room and listen to the songs over that Pepsi radio. Paul even told the newspapers–when some reporter asked what he had done the previous night–Paul said, “Sat in my room and listened to the radio.”
And it was very cool looking: a transistor radio shaped like a miniature Pepsi vending machine. It’s probably a big collectors’ item by now.
PepsiCo still owns the copyright to the stories, and we don’t dare reprint any more of them. You can get a complete copy of “Pop Culture: Stories from Pepsi-Cola’s First 100 Years” on eBay or Amazon, but you’ll have to pay $50 or more to own and read those 18 stories.