Peter Pan and Captain Hook. David and Goliath. Coke and Pepsi.
Every good story has a protagonist and an antagonist. But things get muddled when a third character shows up, said David Littlejohn, founder and creative director of Chattanooga-based Pale Dot Voyage.
Littlejohn knows this from recent experience. One of his clients is SodaStream, an upstart competitor of both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. SodaStream allows users to bottle their own soda at home, theoretically eliminating the need for Coke and Pepsi's worldwide bottling and distribution operations.
But CBS, which owns the rights to the 2013 Super Bowl, took steps to stop SodaStream from reaching a worldwide audience this week when it banned two versions of SodaStream's $3 million Super Bowl ad from airing during the event's fourth quarter.
CBS offered no explanation for why it refused to air the ad, which was scheduled to air just before the two-minute warning. A CBS official declined to comment when reached Friday by the Times Free Press.
Littlejohn said he's puzzled by the cancellation. The SodaStream ad contains no nudity, cursing or other risque content. Instead, the cheeky televised short shows Coke and Pepsi delivery men racing to get their products into a supermarket, when suddenly the bottles containing their cola disintegrate. The instant disappearance of the bottles yields messy results as the soda sloshes to the ground, as the theme from the movie "Deliverance" plays in the background.
"In the Super Bowl, Coke and Pepsi often poke a little fun at each other," said Littlejohn, an industry veteran who created Pale Dot Voyage in January 2012. "We just took this out of their playbook."
Pepsi itself has shown similar Super Bowl ads in the past that depict Coke deliverymen abandoning their employer to get a sip of Pepsi, according to media news publication Ad Age. The ad's cancellation is especially suspicious because Pepsi is sponsoring the Super Bowl's halftime show, and Coke is spending big bucks on a splashy ad of its own, Littlejohn said.
"I think they were being a little protective of one of their biggest sponsors," he said. "Can there no longer be an underdog? Can no one come along and have an alternative point of view?"
Ilan Nacasch, chief marketing officer of SodaStream, said company officials "were surprised as we had no intention to denigrate any specific competitor in this light-hearted and fun spot."
"We are just against plastic bottles!" Nacasch wrote in an email. "But maybe we should not be surprised considering Big Soda companies are sponsors and heavy advertising spenders during [the Super Bowl]."
In response to CBS's cancellation, the Chattanooga ad agency quickly developed an alternative TV spot that doesn't specifically show or mention Coke or Pepsi. CBS has accepted the alternative ad, Littlejohn said.
But not before the Internet erupted over what some say was an unprecedented move to protect one advertiser at the expense of another. #CBSFail hashtags began to pop up on Twitter as more than 2.2 million users found their way to the original banned ad on YouTube. Forbes contributor Will Burns called for "outrage" over CBS' action, noting that it's not the media's job to judge winners and losers.
"If the SodaStream product is a better soda idea than Coke and Pepsi, then shouldn't it be given a fair shot within any medium it decides to risk its dollars?" Burns asked.
Perhaps if CBS really wants to protect two of its biggest advertisers from the SodaStream, it would have done better to simply run the ad, said Littlejohn.
"In the end, the truth kind of finds its way to the public," he said. "Companies like CBS and others need to kind of take notice that wow, maybe it would have been easier if we had just let this happen."