We’re all familiar with the (in)famous Cola Wars. In those wars, Quebec remains one of the world’s few bastions of Pepsi, and with over 60% of the province’s soft drink market in its pocket, it maintains a considerable lead over Coca-Cola (Austen, 2009). You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Great, who cares?!” Well, what would seem to be little more than either a fluke or some sort of inexplicable province-wide taste preference for Coke’s fiercest competitor is a surprisingly interesting social story.
Pepsi’s dominance in La Belle Province reveals the influence of advertising on shaping local preferences by appealing to the implicit and explicit identity markers of target markets, and with impressive staying power. It also shows the depth of the historical rift between Canada’s “two solitudes”. A special ad campaign launched in 1984 targeted a particularly fickle market within the Canadian population — and when I say “fickle” I’m referring to the often caricatured (and frankly derogatory) image of Quebec as that pesky province full of French-speaking malcontents that won’t stop likening itself to a foreign country.
In his ethnography of television and print advertisements in Papua New Guinea, American anthropologist Robert Foster observed that the images and messages of that country’s mixed local and foreign consumer ad machines did far more than expected for the (re)production of a common, national identity than did the apparatuses of the State itself. Foster noticed that even though the State pumped money and energy into the promotion of national hymns, flags, airlines, banks and newspapers, a considerable amount of patriotic messages were coming from foreign companies like Shell, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and various tobacco companies.
By associating the consumption of everyday consumer goods with expressions of a unified national identity, these firms were tapping into the country’s identity politics to build their consumer base. Inspired by the work of social psychologist Michael Billig, Foster shows the role of banal nationalism in Papua New Guinea, whereby the banalities of everyday life become charged with powerful identity markers: “The substitution of advertisement for anthem implies a move from political ritual to commercial ritual that, in turn, betokens an eclipse of the state by the market as the reference point for national belonging” (Foster, 2002:109).
My focus here isn’t necessarily to discuss sociocultural agency in a world dominated by Western-inspired liberal economics and the notion of homo nationalis, nor is it to praise a successful ad campaign. Instead, I’d like to talk about the role of the consumer-citizen and how today the consumption of everyday items can become the vehicle for types of expression that accentuate markers of shared, national identity. These markers can be brought into play in marketing perhaps just as much as the myriad of class, gender and other forms of distinction preyed upon by ads firms. I’m not even talking about identity-rich national consumption practices like France with wine, Guatemala with maize or Japan with ramen. I’m talking about American brands of qualitatively dissimilar fantasy-flavoured sugar water that, thanks (or should I say “no thanks”?) to Coca-Cola and Pepsi, are consumed worldwide. So, keeping the idea of Foster’s consumer-citizen in mind, let’s go back to Quebec.
In large part due to the famous “Take the Pepsi Challenge” blind taste test gimmick launched in 1974, Pepsi had gained considerably on Coca-Cola by the 1980s, almost matching them on the Canadian consumer battlefield (Davis et al, 1993). But the success was only partial. That one province refused to take sides, and clung stubbornly to budget brand Kik Cola. While Anglo-Canadians were swooning to the likes of David Bowie, Michael Jackson, and Madonna in Pepsi’s “The Choice of a New Generation” campaign, Quebeckers remained relatively unimpressed by all the stardust and moonwalking.
In 1984, however, that all changed when Pepsi realised that if its victory in Quebec were to be accomplished, it would have to do more than just transplant francophone faces onto messages crafted for Anglophone Canada (Davis et al, 1993). After all, even according to recent studies by market research company Ipsos, only 25% of ads made for Anglo-American and Canadian consumers can be successfully transferred to the Quebec market because of adaptations required to account for linguistic and cultural differences (2016).
So, Pepsi fully tailored its slogans and images to the Franco-Quebec cultural context and bombarded the province with a precisely targeted ad campaign that acknowledged its unique identity as it would any foreign market. But before we talk about one of the most successful and enduring campaigns in advertisement history, let’s try to figure out what the sociocultural and political conditions were for its success. Just why might Quebeckers have so enthusiastically appropriated Pepsi, and not Coke, as a brand of their own?
Well, for a start, Pepsi opened its first-ever Canadian bottling plant in Montreal in 1934. The initially cheaper price tag compared to Coke led to its popularity among the largely underprivileged, working class francophone population of the city. Language and identity politics run deep in Quebec, and especially in Montreal. When they weren’t drinking Montreal’s own Kik Cola (the cheapest of the cheap), the considerably downtrodden urban Francos would reach for a Pepsi. By the mid-1940’s, the word “Pepsi” (sometimes shortened to “Pepper”) had become a derogatory term commonly used by Anglo-Montrealers to mock their francophone compatriots’ poor taste and empty pockets (Richler, 2010). If you had the cash, you’d drink a Coke.
The territory has been through its fair share of social and political tumult, the history of which will be unsatisfyingly short in this article. Much began to change in Quebec towards the end of the 1950’s, and by the 1960’s the province was embroiled in what would be dubbed The Quiet Revolution (La Révolution tranquille). The decade-long francophone linguistic, political and cultural awakening led ultimately in two referendums to secede from Canada, the first of which was in 1980. It was in the 1980’s that Pepsi’s marketing department took a chance not often taken by foreign or even many domestic companies in Quebec at the time.
Pepsi launched a campaign specifically targeting Quebeckers using local celebrities to lure them away from Coca-Cola. In 1984, Claude Meunier, a beloved actor and humoriste, became the new face of Pepsi in Quebec. In 30-second television spots he parodied hockey goons, diner-dwelling urbanites and Saguenay fishermen, incarnating in cringe-worthy fashion everything it meant to be Québécois. His imitation of the diphthong-rich Lac-Saint-Jean twang is remembered to this day.
The ads appealed to Quebec’s feeling of uniqueness in la mer anglophone that surrounds it, and surely had to have ridden the wave of widespread nationalist sentiment following the first referendum. After all, in wasn’t even until the Quiet Revolution (nearly two hundred years after the British conquest of New France) that Montreal’s Anglo-dominated ad firms even considered localization that went beyond a hasty translation job or the addition of a cut-and-paste fleur-de-lis (Elkin, 1969). In any case, no grudges or bitter memories boiled up from the “Pepsi” insults of the past, and the campaign was an instant success. Seemingly overnight, Pepsi skyrocketed from 15 points below Coca-Cola to 20 points above its competitor’s sales in the province (Yuile, 2016). They may not have gotten their own country in the 1980 referendum, but by the mid-1980’s Quebeckers were exercising their rights as Quebec consumer-citizens.
The exploitation of patriotic sentiment and other elements of a market’s sociocultural climate to hock consumer goods are not unique, especially in North America. In the United States, the annual orgy of patriotism and advertising that is the Super Bowl has already attained comedic levels of absurdity. When the 115 million Americans tuning in are almost more excited for the commercial break than the game itself, it’s hard to take anything seriously anymore!
Anglophone Canada also has a soft spot for companies that stoke the glory of the Great White North. As Queen’s University business professor Tandy Thomas recently told the CBC during a winter 2016 boycott of Heinz Ketchup (who Canadian grocery giant Loblaws recently opted for over another company that used Ontario-grown tomatoes), “Canadians are extremely patriotic and we respond very well to brands that tap into what it means to be Canadian” (Goodyear, 2016). Who even knows what it “means to be Canadian”, but just turn on a TV next time you’re in the country and you’ll hear all about it during the commercial break. From trucks to beer to home hardware, it’s remarkable how often the Great Red Maple Leaf sells the goods. In a time when being mistaken for an American might as well be an insult, a strong desire to distinguish themselves from their southern neighbours certainly drives the patriotic potency of Canadian advertisements, and with great success.
As for Quebec, what’s even more interesting than the campaign’s initial success is that it continues decades later, and that’s what really reveals the enduring loyalty of the province’s consumer citizens. Meunier still publicly pushes the beverage, although now in his older age he reps for Diet Pepsi instead. In the early 2000s, the slogan “Ici, c’est Pepsi” (Here, it’s Pepsi) made its debut in television spots. It’s a stark contrast to Coca-Cola’s “Everywhere in the world, it’s Coke” (Yuile, 2016).
Even outside of the heated socio-political context of the referendums, the Quebec consumer-citizen lives on, and has kept Pepsi flying out of vending machines. All the while, Coca-Cola continues to dominate in every other province. These days, Pepsi deploys more contemporary actors and comedians in ads that feature cultural staples like poutine (fries topped with gravy and cheese curds), celebrate Québécois linguistic regionalisms, and poke fun at the province’s infamously potholed roads. They also portray an at least slightly less white-washed image of the Quebec population.
It’s impossible not to see that expressions of consumer-citizenship are a widespread phenomenon, but it’s harder to determine to what extent consumer habits and preferences are generated by the population and to what extent they are just imagined by ad firms and sent downward. A large nationalist base still plays an important role in Quebec’s cultural and political life, but many young people today find it hard to side with their grandparents’ and even their parents’ nationalist visions. I’ve heard people denounce Pepsi explicitly because of the ads’ unambiguous attempt to appeal to a corny or even contrived sense of “Quebecness” that perpetuates tiresome identity politics. History has made it difficult for Franco-Quebeckers today to express enthusiasm for their difference from the rest of Canada without almost automatically being perceived as anti-Anglo or anti-Canadian.
These days, nationalist political fervour is at a relative low and the reality of becoming an independent state is still out of reach. However, the reality of the Quebec nation is still very much alive thanks to a vibrant society that continues to celebrate and promote the Francophone experience in North America. A 2015 study by Laval University on national identity and the lasting effects of the 1995 Referendum found that although only 25% of Franco-Quebeckers still view the province’s sovereignty as a viable option, 67% still identify first as Québécois and second as Canadian.
It seems that such ads will continue so as long as there’s a shared sense of distinction large enough to be rendered profitable, and a populace of consumer-citizens willing to express itself as much as on the store shelf as in the ballot box (and even instead of?). Maybe we should be asking ourselves what the future of civic duty looks like. Dare I say that in a twisted sense of empowerment, and in the context of the bitter history of Anglophone dominance over French Canadians, Pepsi’s pursuit of the proverbial bottom-line led it to unintentionally demonstrate the long-denied existence of a Quebec nation? In any case, Quebeckers still drink the alternative to Coke, the number two, and like it. Just like their respective flags, Canada is Coca-Cola red, and Quebec is Pepsi blue.
So, just in case you forgot, we’re never just buying a car, some shoes or a can of cola. Identity, real or imagined, sells. And we’re buying it!
Sources and References:
Austen, I. (2009) Pepsi occupies a special place in Quebecers’ hearts.
Billig, M. (1995) Banal Nationalism. SAGE.
Bourdieu, Pierre. (1979) La distinction : critique sociale du jugement. Paris : Éditions de Minuit, 2007.
Bourque, O. (2009) Ici, c’est (encore) Pepsi.
Davis, S. et al. (1993) The Pepsi ‘Meunier’ Campaign.
Elkin, F. (1969) Advertising Themes and Quiet Revolutions: Dilemmas in French Canada. American Journal of Sociology. 112-122.
Foster, Robert (2002). Materializing the Nation: Commodities, Consumption, and Media in Papua New Guinea. Indiana University Press.
Goodyear, S. (2016) How patriotic fervor helped French’s win a battle in the ketchup wars.
Richler, H. (2010) How a soft drink became Quebec’s Homegrown insult.
Université Laval. (2015) Les 20 ans du référendum 1995.
Yakabuski, K. (2008) How Pepsi won Quebec.
Yuile, C. (2016) Cibler les Canadiens en publicité : Bière, joie de vivre et Sid Lee.
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Samuel Victor is a graduate student of anthropology at the University of Montreal, and a student-member of the Laboratory for Research on Intercultural Relations (LABRRI). His research explores how the structural aspects of community sector organisations reflect (or not) the dynamic between diverse perspectives and definitions of the “successful” integration of immigrants and refugees into the host society. Other interests include North American history, US politics and economic anthropology.
This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam. A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.
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