A Classic That Stands Out: Michael Jackson’s Pepsi Generation Version of “Billie Jean”

Watching Michael Jackson’s 1984 Pepsi Generation ad is like taking a trip back to a time when commercials could make history. Pepsi’s “Choice of a New Generation” campaign marked a pivotal moment in advertising, featuring a revamped version of “Billie Jean” with new lyrics promoting the soda. The ad was directed by Bob Giraldi, known for his work on Jackson’s “Beat It” music video. It showcased a young boy, Alfonso Ribeiro, dressed as Jackson and performing his signature dance moves on the street with friends. Suddenly, the real Michael Jackson appears with the Jackson 5, and together they create a dance spectacle.

This commercial was part of a groundbreaking $5 million endorsement deal between Jackson and Pepsi, making it the largest commercial sponsorship deal at the time. The ad not only highlighted Jackson’s peak fame, fresh off the success of his 34-times Platinum album “Thriller,” but also marked the beginning of Alfonso Ribeiro’s rise to fame. Ribeiro later became a household name as Carlton Banks on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” where he continued to showcase his impressive dance skills.

The production of the ad was a collaborative effort, with Jackson being very involved in every detail, from choreography to location scouting. Bob Giraldi noted Jackson’s hands-on approach, saying, “Michael was very much involved in the execution of everything, from the choreography to the location scouting. He really knew what worked.” The success of the campaign led Pepsi to renew their deal with Jackson for $10 million during his “Bad” album cycle.

However, the campaign wasn’t without its challenges. During the filming of one of the commercials in 1984, a pyrotechnic accident caused Jackson’s hair to catch fire. Despite the severity of the situation, Jackson continued performing until others rushed to his aid. His longtime makeup artist, Karen Faye, recalled the incident vividly, describing it as surreal and frightening. “All his hair was gone and there was smoke coming out of his head,” she said.

Despite this incident, the Pepsi Generation ad campaign remains a landmark in both advertising and Michael Jackson’s career. It demonstrated the powerful synergy between a global superstar and a major brand, setting a high bar for future marketing collaborations. The ad not only promoted Pepsi but also solidified Michael Jackson’s status as an icon and introduced Alfonso Ribeiro to the world, creating a lasting legacy in the world of entertainment.

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