Pepsi: What Were You Thinking

There’s usually not a bad time to enjoy a nice, refreshing Pepsi. At your summer BBQ with friends and family, on the couch watching your favorite team, or at work during your lunch break.  However, one place Pepsi does not exactly fit in is at protests, specifically as a tool to stop protests. Unfortunately, this was the awful mistake Pepsi made last week with its commercial titled “Live for Now Moments Anthem” with reality star Kendall Jenner. According to Pepsi, whatever social injustice or political protest is being fought over, as long as you have an attractive female happily hand the police a refreshing soft drink, all the problems of our society will go away. So congratulations to Pepsi for being the front runner for Most Tone-Deaf Commercial of 2017 thus far.

Just in case you’ve been in a coma or for some reason have zero access to social media, I’ll go ahead and run through the commercial for you. The ad actually starts out in a way that doesn’t make you think it will be an out-of-touch and insensitive attempt to sell a sugary soft drink. We see a man playing the cello and sweating a lot more than you think a man playing the cello should be before we get a quick glimpse at the protests, which we don’t really understand the reasoning behind. The diversity of the crowd and amount of cliché peace signs you see paints the picture for the most vague and unknown protest imaginable. I’m sure this wasn’t on accident, because why would you want to start controversy by singling out one social issue when you can just kind of bunch them all together, that sounds a thousand times better, doesn’t it? The whole plot just seems like an easy and lazy way to pander to all those involved in today’s protests over various issues.

The Pepsi ad, starring reality TV personality Kendall Jenner, was taken down less than a day after being released. 

While these protests are going on, we see Kendall Jenner casually having a photoshoot off to the side, not paying any attention to what is going on literally 25 feet from her. After we are introduced to a struggling female photographer wearing a head dress and see a strange sequence where the protest pauses for a quick dance party in the street, we finally go back to the star of the commercial, Kendall Jenner. She is still in the middle of her photoshoot when she has finally had enough and just has to join the protests. She triumphantly rips off her fake wig and colorful, probably $200 makeup; symbolically breaking the chains that keep her from being normal so she can join these protests.

As Kendall Jenner makes her way through the crowd, fist-bumping and smiling with everyone as if they were at a giant 4th of July block party, she bravely walks up to the line of police officers blocking the road and hands one of them a Pepsi, because of course no one else was capable of doing this. Only an attractive millionaire who has never experienced any of the difficulties or oppression that those in actual protests have can do such a heroic act. After she walks up, miraculously, she isn’t beaten, arrested, or pepper sprayed.

The officer gladly accepts the soda and what would you know, the crowd starts cheering and all the problems of the world are magically gone. The officers look at each other like “Well, this Pepsi is pretty darn good, I think our job here is done,” and everyone celebrates as if Donald Trump didn’t go golfing for a weekend and stayed at the White House. It’s ridiculous.

The biggest issue I have with the commercial is the disrespect towards those who have felt the need to protest because of various social injustices or oppression. How are those who have been active in Black Lives Matter rallies or participated in the marches for Women’s Equality supposed to feel about this? What about the activists and Native Americans who have been shot with water in freezing temperatures and exposed to tear gas while trying to protect the water supply on their reservation? Are they all supposed to watch this ad and just think that their voices would be heard and causes understood if someone had brought a damn 12-pack of Pepsi?

“I think too many everyday Americans without a lot of depth of consciousness about white privilege probably watched the commercial without any controversy at all and thought it was uplifting and motivational until minorities pointed out how insulting it really was,” said Jennifer McJunkin, a socially active mother who immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in the 1960s.

The company released the ad on Tuesday, April 4th, and perhaps the smartest thing they did with this situation was remove it by Wednesday after the harsh backlash on the internet. Within 48 hours, the video got almost 2 million views and has since been deleted from Pepsi’s channel. On other popular YouTube channels the commercial is still available, with over 14 million collective views and 200,000 downvotes compared to just 45,000 upvotes.  The backlash was so immediate that it was parodied that following Saturday on Saturday Night Live.

If there was one thing that this ad did manage to do, it was to piss off the internet.

“It’s a unique skill to have #BoycottPepsi trending among both the right and the left. It managed to alienate both sides of an increasingly polarized consumer universe,” says Nicola Kemp, trends editor at advertising trade magazine Campaign.

There was a firestorm of tweets and posts lashing out at the ridiculousness that this ad suggests. Pictures of Kendall Jenner giving the soda to the officer was plastered next to pictures of Ieshia Evans facing down police in Baton Rouge, Louisians from last year.  Others pointed to the disrespect it showed toward famous civil rights activitst such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr, with MLK Jr’s daughter tweeting a photo of her father being arrested with the caption, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

The internet was quick to draw the inaccuracies between the ad and real-life situations, pointing to this image of Ieshia Evans, who was confronted by police in riot gear during protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana last year. 

One of the aspects of the commercial that I was frustrated with was the lack of making any political statement at all and taking no stand on any subject. If Pepsi would have at least taken a stance on BLM or Women’s Equality and created a more serious ad, I would have respected them a little bit more. Instead, they decided to be as vague as possible and slap a bunch of peace and love symbols on signs and show people happily protesting whatever cause you want them to be protesting.

One data study revealed that Pepsi saw an astounding 21,000% increase in mentions after the ad was released, with 427,000 mentions over Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram on April 4th and another 1.25 million on April 5th. Over the course of the next week, almost 60% of posts mentioning Pepsi were negative and the most used term regarding Pepsi was “tone-deaf.”

It is amazing what can happen when you give all of the internet something to light their torches and sharpen their pitchforks over.

Personally, it is still head-scratching trying to figure out how this type of ad even made it out of the brainstorming session. The fact that this idea was pitched, built upon, and greenlighted my multiple people without thinking of the repercussions is just insane.

“How can it be that a group of people could be totally oblivious to the reaction that a commercial like this would generate? I have been following commercials like this since the 80’s, and this goes to the top of the list. There should have been someone who would have stopped it,” said Lisa Skriloff, president of the consulting firm Multicultural Marketing Resources.

Amazingly, Pepsi didn’t exactly apologize at first for their mistake. As if they weren’t deaf enough, they explained in a statement that “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.” Ah, yes. Nothing screams people coming together in spirit and harmony like demeaning social injustice and having our problems fixed with a millionaire handing an officer some soda. That just isn’t our reality and someone needs to help Pepsi find its way back to Earth.

Eventually Pepsi did release a statement apologizing for the commercials, saying “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

As ad campaigns and marketing strategies have increasingly have increasingly moved toward a more progressive ideology, there are still struggles in the advertising industry to embrace and tell stories around diversity. This particular commercial was created by their in-house content creation team, which could have been a part of their blindness to the ad’s content.

Obviously Pepsi did not set out to cause such a controversy with this ad. I actually believe they meant well by it, just executed poorly. Unfortunately, if all you have on your content team are individuals who don’t understand reality or what normal looks like, you will get content that reflects that. Adding diversity to the process leads to diverse content and possibly those who have opposing views or that can shed light as to why an ad like this might be offensive.

If Pepsi used an outside agency, a broader or wider range of ideas and opinions may have been available, since in-house creators have ties and possible bias to the company. On top of this, an outside agency has the ability to test ads or campaigns with a wider range of audiences and consumers, getting more beneficial feedback. Unfortunately, most companies use their in-house agencies in order to cut costs and develop content faster and more efficiently.

“All brands are under pressure to cut costs, and agencies are often in the cross hairs, but a company’s employees may be more reluctant to offer criticism, potentially leading to a controversial ad like Pepsi’s getting the green light. There are so many stakeholders in large organizations, It’s about consensus-building and making everybody happy,” said Matt Britton, CEO of Crowdtap, a marketing technology firm.

The history of Pepsi advertising has always revolved around the younger generation. In the 1960s, Pepsi began using the phrase, “the Pepsi generation” and “For those who think young,” referring to what would be millennials today. Soda companies in general have always pitched hard to the youth and have been trying to hook that demographic with the message of unity for years.

One of the most well-known messages of unity from a soda company, and one that has drawn a lot of comparison in terms of the message to this current Pepsi ad, is the 1971 “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad from Coca-Cola.

Snapshot of Coca-Cola’s 1971 commercial, “I’d like to buy the world a coke.”

The 1971 ad was a perfect example of using activism and a message of unity in a time where the flower had power and America was growing tired of the Vietnam War. Using a large group of young, racially and ethnically diverse individuals singing together in harmony, you can see where the similarities lie between the two commercials. The 1971 spot was a little more safe and less provocative as it didn’t show a hippie throwing some Coke at Vietnam soldiers and ending the war (thankfully).

Fortunately for Coca-Cola or really any company that made edgy and debatable ads back then, people didn’t have the tools they have today to respond and voice their outrage. Now, you can voice your opinion in 140 characters or less to thousands and thousands within minutes. Pictures, memes, and videos can go viral across the internet and be seen by millions. Maybe Pepsi should have greenlighted this idea back in the 70s so they could get a test run of the ad without the backlash.

“What Pepsi was doing was seeking to show its social responsibility. It’s classic cause-related marketing, because in aligning itself with good causes, it boosts sales and brand loyalty,” said Dr. John Jewell of Cardiff University, who teaches on advertising, propaganda and political communication, when discussing the similarities between the new Pepsi ad and the 1971 Coca-Cola ad.

This was the problem I talked about earlier. Yes, Pepsi is trying to align themselves with good causes, but those causes are unknown. They don’t take a definitive stance on anything other than all millennials look super cool and wear denim.

The ad does try and follow an increasing trend of 2017 of political ads that support some type of activism or anti-Trump ideology. During the Super Bowl alone we saw this in Budweiser, Airbnb, Google, Audi, and 84 Lumber. The key term there is that Pepsi tried, they certainly did not succeed. Taking a more decisive stance on an issue would have been much more effective.

All of the backlash and controversy aside, I am more disappointed than anything at the missed opportunity by Pepsi. They had the opportunity to really lead the way in terms of advertising centered on some actual social injustice problem of our society. While I love an ad that undermines Trump as much as the next snowflake, there hasn’t been enough ads that highlight other issues occurring around us. Pepsi had that chance and blew it, opting for a fun-loving and out of touch ad that rather patronizes these very same issues.

I honestly could care less that they have Kendall Jenner as a spokesperson. She is a well-known celerity who has a very strong following among the target audience of Pepsi. It was using her as the key component of change in a protest when she herself has never been involved in one let alone been oppressed or a victim to social injustice like so many others have.

I understand that it is not the job of an advertiser to promote social issues or highlight injustice, they are in the business of selling Pepsi. However, since Pepsi took this route that kind of overlapped into social issues, they opened the door for this type of criticism. Pepsi could have had a serious ad, showing a more serious protest that focuses on a certain issue. A powerful ad highlighting the extreme force used by officials at Standing Rock that shows the struggle currently happening on Native American lands. There could be a partnership where Pepsi donates money or helps fund the activists who have been fighting the DAPL now for months.

Perhaps Pepsi could have showed footage of the Women’s March for Equality, praising their efforts and encouraging a message of hope and equality for all women. Again, maybe partnering with Planned Parenthood and supporting their cause.

There are many different paths Pepsi could have taken with this idea, unfortunately they chose the road with the most bumps and potholes imaginable. Fortunately, from BLM to marches for LGBTQ rights, people are already being politically active around the world and are doing so without the help of any soda.

Thankfully many people recognized the insensitiveness of this ad and had enough empathy to put themselves in someone else’s shoes to see where they are coming from, and that is a step in the right direction.



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