Okay, bear with me here. I love football, college and professional, always have and probably always will. I worked for an NFL team for 20 years. Part of the landscape of sports is advertising. It’s inescapable, it’s what keeps the lights on. I also love good storytelling, and an art form that has arisen in the last 20 years or so is the cinematic television series. No advertising campaign has captured both of these things as well as Dr. Pepper. Now, I am not a particular fan of the beverage myself. It’s an occasional treat. Sure, there might be a can or two of Diet Dr. Pepper in the fridge right now, but still, not my favorite, and I hardly touch pop anymore anyway.
Dr. Pepper was at the forefront of catchy advertising back in the 1970s with their “I’m a Pepper, you’re a Pepper” jingle-laden TV spots. Also in the 1970s and 1980s, Miller Lite capitalized on the popularity of beloved sports figures with their “Tastes Great, Less Filling” ad campaign featuring the likes of Hall of Fame Head Coach John Madden.
Fast-forward to the 2010s and college football. For decades, the NCAA, the media, and fans grappled with the lack of a playoff format to decide each season’s National Champion. The Bowl Championship Series replaced an arbitrary, somewhat biased, and subjective bowl and poll system, and the College Football Playoff superseded the BCS in 2014.
Enter Larry Culpepper.
As the NCAA was on the verge of adopting the College Football Playoff, Dr. Pepper introduced us to Larry Culpepper, an affable stadium soda salesman (played by James M. Connor), who claims to have invented the College Football Playoff. He even had a diagram drawn on a cocktail napkin as proof.
In 2018, Dr. Pepper “retired” Larry Culpepper and took us to a town called Fansville, a place enamored with all things college football, and of course, Dr. Pepper. There was only one problem, no Larry Culpepper. To say the new campaign was met with venom would be an understatement. I was one of those who did not like the new concept, and I thought they did Larry Culpepper dirty. For nearly five years, we had grown accustomed to Larry hawking Dr. Pepper and extolling the virtues of the National Championship-deciding formula he supposedly invented.
Even as the Fansville concept improved, I would still occasionally tweet at Dr. Pepper’s official account (as if I don’t have anything better to do) and ask where Larry Culpepper was and if they were going to bring him back. They’ve had plenty of opportunities and windows to do so.
As for Fansville, I didn’t care for it much at first. My initial reaction was something to the effect of, “What the hell is this?” But as the concept evolved and the storytelling took wing, I have grown to enjoy it quite a bit. There are core characters, comedy, drama, even a bit of science fiction and horror. It pokes fun at some serious topics and parodies life’s big moments, suburbia, rivalries, and sports tropes through the lens of a small college football town. Even Joe Theismann has lent his talents to the campaign. A mythos and lore have developed around Fansville. Yet, it’s been missing something. Larry Culpepper.
Each commercial is treated as a long-form commercial for a television show, and each commercial is a condensed version of said show. In one of the current season’s installments, there was a perfect opportunity to bring Larry back and it didn’t happen. As the commercials follow a TV show style and format, the latest is the “season finale” of Fansville, the characters struggled with their place in the universe, their own reality, and their fate in the dreaded “offseason.” Just before a moment of self-realization, the camera pulls back to reveal that Fansville exists, Krampus style, in a snowglobe. You see a hand, a Dr. Pepper visor, and a pair of sunglasses on a table next to the bauble. Larry Culpepper’s hand, sunglasses and visor.
It has taken quite a while for Dr. Pepper’s Fansville story arc to get to this point, four years to be exact, typical length of a college degree program perhaps. I don’t know if Dr. Peppper planned this all along or this is a nod to those of us who liked the Larry Culpepper character and didn’t care for his undeserved end. Just as Dos Equis ruined the Most Interesting Man in the World campaign, with a college football tie-in interestingly enough, they at least shot him into space. Larry Culpepper got no such send-off.
But I do know this, Fansville exists in Larry Culpepper’s snow globe, and however Dr. Pepper got there, this is pure marketing and advertising genius. It’ll be interesting to see where this goes now.
“Wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too …”