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Cola wars return: Pepsi MAX vs. Coke Zero

Cola wars have returned between soft drink behemoths Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, but this time with fewer calories.

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Labels from Coca-Cola Zero and Pepsi MAX are seen in this photo montage. Cola wars have returned between soft drink makers Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, but this time with fewer calories.

Juan Barreto/AFP/Newscom, Samuel Rigelhaupt/Sipa Press/Newscom (photo montage)

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The cola wars are back, and this time they have zero calories but plenty of nostalgia. PepsiCo Inc. will premiere a revamped version of its "Diner" Super Bowl commercial on Monday night, pitting its Pepsi MAX against Coca-Cola's popular Coke Zero, a brand five times its size.

Analysts say people love the funny, spirited rivalry of the decades-old cola wars and the move will benefit both soda makers. That's good news for the $100 billion industry, which is seeing weak soft drink sales as shoppers switch to healthier juices and teas.

The premise of the new Pepsi MAX ad is the same from the 1995 original, one of the better loved commercials from Super Bowl XXIX: Delivery drivers from the rival soft drink makers form a short-lived friendship in a diner over music. The first ad's song was The Youngblood's "Get Together." This time around it's "Why Can't We Be Friends" by War. They sample each other's drinks and the Coca-Cola driver prefers the Pepsi product. And then the friendship comes to an abrupt — and funny — end.

The first version compared the longtime No. 2 Pepsi and Coca-Cola brands. This time around, the ads take on a very 21st century product — zero-calorie versions of their full-calorie counterparts.

Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, has been wildly successful with its five-year-old Coke Zero brand, which taps into the healthy shopper mindset. Now PepsiCo wants to move into that market with Pepsi MAX, which has its roots in Europe but is relatively new to the U.S. Pepsi MAX first launched in 1993 overseas and came to the U.S. in 2007, two years after Coke Zero's release. The entire brand did $1.7 billion in sales in 68 countries last year. Coke Zero has been growing in the double digits for four years now and is in 133 countries. The brand is worth more than $1 billion in sales.

The new ad is again directed by Joe Pytka, who has directed dozens of Pepsi ads over the years, including ones featuring notable stars such as Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin. Viewers will see a familiar face. Art LaFleur, who played the Pepsi driver in the original, runs the diner.

Coca-Cola has not done comparison advertising for Coca-Cola Zero beyond comparing itself to Coca-Cola. It was quick to downplay the assertion that Pepsi MAX is better.

"Doesn't a fight require two sides? As far as we can tell, the two drivers in this ad may be the only remaining Pepsi MAX drinkers," said Coca-Cola North America spokesman Scott Williamson.

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The updated version of "Diner" is the latest in a long line of advertising remakes, as creators dig back to past successes to tap into nostalgia. A Coke Zero Super Bowl ad in 2009 remade the company's classic "Mean Joe Greene" commercial with Pittsburgh Steeler Troy Polamalu. Boost Mobile remade the famous Super Bowl Shuffle with Chicago Bears alumni in this past year's Super Bowl.

PepsiCo declined to say how much it is spending on the ad, which was made in collaboration with TBWA/Chiat/Day LA ad agencies. The company, based in Purchase, New York, promises this is just the beginning of a new push for the brand. The campaign will also be extended online to feature exclusive content on Facebook and YouTube.

"We think now is the time to start banging on the drum, on the fact that we believe we have a great tasting, zero-calorie soda and we're ready to take on the competition," said spokeswoman Melisa Tezanos.

The cola wars have been successful for Pepsi and Coca-Cola in the past because they draw attention to the products and they'll likely do so again, said John Sicher, editor of trade publication Beverage Digest.

"This is sort of classic Pepsi, a funny, provocative ad taking a shot at Coke," he said. "This can only help both companies and both products."

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