Brand Partnerships: Diet Pepsi x Top Gun 

Today marks the release of Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to Top Gun, 36 years in the making. 

To call 1986’s Top Gun “formative” to my upbringing would be reductive. As a little boy growing up in rural Kansas, I was inclined to seek out movies that would teach an impressionable kid like me how to act (or at least dress) like more of a grown-up. I can — clear as day — still recall the first time I watched Top Gun with my dad. All of six years old, I learned what the middle finger meant, I learned a little bit too much about intimacy (the shadowy tongue play to “Take My Breath Away” is still too much for me to bear), and I learned a lot about style, adopting a pair of mirrored aviators, beefy pocket tees, blue jeans and cowboy boots as personal trademarks. I’d come to find out years later Director Tony Scott lifted the film’s style from Ralph Lauren mainstay, photographer Bruce Weber’s first book, Looking Good: A Guide for Men. And just this week, I learned that Tony Scott wore Cruise’s cowboy boots for several years after the film’s release and that Tom Cruise still has the bomber jacket from the first film (when I was in second grade, my gracious mother tracked down some patches from the film and sewed them onto a denim approximation of Maverick’s bomber. You can pick up one of Ryan Martin’s excellent denim jackets which nod to the film on his site, W.H. Ranch Dungarees). 

In the summer of 1987, the week leading up to Father’s Day, my mom drove me and my brother to Wichita. We went to Sam’s Club and loaded up a cart with economy-sized bags of Eagle Snacks, a Ramp Rat Skateboard from Variflex and a shrink-wrapped copy of Top Gun, which then retailed for the steal-of-a-deal price of $26.95. I’m sure my savvy mom knew Sam’s was selling it for less, and I remember that she had a coupon that she’d cut out of the weekend’s Wichita Eagle for even more of a discount on the tape. 

I still remember going to a closet in our house and seeing my dad’s unmistakable ALL CAPS, ITALICIZED, perfect. ballpoint penmanship on row upon row of white-stickered, black tapes listing the hours of Home Box Office recordings: LADYHAWKE, ROMANCING THE STONE, THE FLAMINGO KID and — just as formidable as Top GunHOT DOG… THE MOVIE. Significantly, apart from several free-with-purchase VHS tapes, most movies were cost-prohibitive to own outright. In our household it was the free-with-Sports-Illustrated-subscription All New Football Follies hosted by the immortal Jonathan Winters, still a must-watch. Top Gun was the first movies widely made available on VHS. According to IMDB, Top Gun is credited with starting the home video industry

Unlike earlier, studio-released VHS tapes which were priced at an average of $100 (mainly for the purpose of being sold to video rental stores. This clip from Cracked correctly compares the practice to the selling of textbooks), Top Gun was priced to own immediately, made possible in part by advertising purchased by Pepsi. “Commercial free” was a main draw of early cable efforts like HBO and VHS rental stores like Blockbuster Video. In the same year of Top Gun’s VHS release, Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs suggested that “merchandising” is the greatest power in the universe. An effort as commercialized as the one put together by Paramount and Pepsi was so novel at the time that media outlets like the LA Times, Chicago Tribune and Time Magazine covered the inclusion of the commercial. 

Collectors are catching onto the important role the Diet Pepsi VHS tape release played with some copies going for upwards of $1000 on eBay if you can track one down still in its shrink-wrap. I don’t think our Sam’s Club copy, purchased nearly six months after the initial release was emblazoned with the Diet Pepsi logo, but I can definitively say the commercial was included in the opening minute of the tape. 

Swap “Mustang” for “Maverick” and a coffee cup for a middle finger in that inversion, and you have the makings of a nice nod to the first act of Top Gun. As a branding exercise, I’m especially fond that it leans towards subtlety, especially when compared to the overtness of Applebee’s recent “Buzz the ‘bee” campaign, promoting a free ticket to the film with a $25 purchase at participating Applebee’s

Side note: If you listen closely, the voice of the control tower operator (Call sign: “Den Mother”) sounds remarkably close to the voice of Scott Glenn.

At the time of publication, Top Gun: Maverick has a Rotten Tomatoes score of 97%. Compare that to the original’s 56%. Talk about “Diet.” With more than twice the calories of the original, here’s hoping we truly can call Maverick “the best of the best.”


Glen “Hangman” Powell’s Top Gun Playlist on Spotify

Cinefix – Top 10 Aerial Dogfights of All Time

Cinefix – 7 Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Top Gun