In an apparent homage to the new President, PepsiCo has plastered the sides of buses and bus stops in the nation's capital with slogans like "Yes You Can," "Optimismmmm" and "Hope." In each poster, the letter O is inscribed with the redesigned Pepsi logo, a red, white and blue sphere that echoes the rising-sun image used by the Obama campaign. (See the best of the Obama Inaugural merchandise.)
It is not hard to interpret the message. Since 1984, Pepsi has been marketing itself as the hip, happening beverage of youth "The choice of a new generation," as its longtime slogan went. And Barack Obama, one of the youngest men to serve as President, is nothing if not hip, especially among young consumers who supported him by wide margins. Pepsi says the campaign is not a political endorsement. "We're not interested in following political tailwinds," says Nicole Bradley, a Pepsi spokeswoman. "But we are interested in cultural change." (Watch a video about selling Obamamania.)
That said, the marketing campaign, which includes TV and print ads as well, does raise a question: Is Pepsi actually the choice of the Obama Administration?
My reporting at the White House suggests the answer is a resounding no. Several senior Administration officials are committed cola drinkers, and without fail they spend their days sipping from a can of Diet Coke, a product of Pepsi's chief competitor, Coca-Cola. On Monday, as members of Congress and key lobbyists filed into a briefing room for the final event of a daylong fiscal summit, they were greeted with an ice chest full of complimentary Diet Coke, not Diet Pepsi. (Montana Democratic Senator Max Baucus was one of many to grab a can.) Hours earlier, at a breakout session with members of Congress in the Indian Treaty Room, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag handled not one, but two cans of Diet Coke during the nearly two-hour session. Larry Summers, Obama's top economic adviser, rarely walks anywhere in the White House complex without a can of Diet Coke in his hand. He is well known for interrupting conversations to take another swig. (See the best and worst Super Bowl commercials of 2009.)
But these examples do not even constitute the most damning evidence against Pepsi. Late last year, Obama's nascent Administration worked out of transition offices in a downtown government building, which was serviced by only Pepsi-brand vending machines, according to three people who worked in the building. Two Administration officials have told me that a group of Obama aides, frustrated by having to run the security gauntlet to go to the corner store, stocked a refrigerator with Diet Coke in open rebellion against the available options. The pattern has continued at the White House. In his West Wing office, as in his previous office at Harvard University, Summers has a refrigerator stocked with cans of the decidedly non-Pepsi beverage. (See a list of who's who in Obama's White House.)
Though Pepsi is available in the West Wing mess, it is rarely, if ever, seen out in the open. On Thursday, the recycling bin outside White House spokesman Robert Gibbs' office contained six cans of Diet Coke and one can of Sprite Zero, which is also a Coca-Cola product. In another part of the building, I asked a White House official, who had a can of Diet Coke sitting on his desk, if the Obama Administration had a clear bias for Coke over Pepsi. "I think that's true," the official responded, with a smile. "Don't most Americans?"
To a certain degree, yes. Nationwide, Coke is more popular than Pepsi, but not by the same margin seen among White House staff. Beverage Digest, a trade publication, reported that Coke and Diet Coke had a 27.2% share of the carbonated-beverage market in 2007, compared with a 16.7% share for Pepsi and Diet Pepsi.
As an official matter, the U.S. government is usually nonpartisan in the cola wars. In congressional office buildings, both Coke and Pepsi products are sold at vending machines, as they are in the waiting room at Andrews Air Force Base, where reporters wait to board Air Force One. In the air, the President's personal flight crew offers either cola to passengers. Nor is soda the only option for officials working in the White House. Several members of the press operation keep going with a steady diet of coffee, while one younger member of the White House Web team was spotted recently walking to work with a case of kombucha, a fermented tea drink sold at health food stores.
The health-conscious President is not known to have a strong preference for either Coke or Pepsi though he was spotted at one debate sipping from a bottle of Aquafina water, which is made by PepsiCo. Obama is, however, a well-known fan of Honest Tea, a drink made by a company that is 40% owned by Coca-Cola.