Pepsi: What Were You Thinking?!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have heard about the catastrophic backlash Pepsi has received for their new TV and digital campaign featuring TV star and model Kendall Jenner. Created by its in-house creative team, Creators League Studio, we see Jenner on a modelling shoot who joins a protest mid-shoot. What is the protest for? I have no idea. No one knows.

Creatively, the advert is crap anyway. However, in terms of a brand ambassador, Kendall is actually the perfect candidate to reflect Pepsi’s pop culture background, which has previously featured other famous faces like Michael Jackson, Britney Spears and Beyonce. They could have worked with her social media influence and her fashion background to create a successful and fun campaign, but instead created a monster that has deeply offended and shocked so many people all over the world.
So how on earth did Pepsi get it so wrong? After a lot of thought since the ad was first released, here are my theories as to how this cultural tragedy unfurled:

  1. Diversity in the workplace: clearly no one of colour had any input in the narrative of this ad. Creators League Studio evidently do not have enough people of the backgrounds that they wish to represent in this ad.
  2. Work and fear culture: how the f*ck did this get approved?! How did no one at the Studio say “wait a minute, this concept seems really contrived”? Is there a culture there that makes people feel unable to stand up for what is right and wrong? I could never sit back and be part of something that I know is fundamentally wrong for humanity.
  3. Experience: without doubt, no one working on the commercial has ever been involved in a protest, experienced inequality, racial profiling, seclusion or segregation. Despite this, even if you have never experienced these things, surely you must know about it? The internet exists. History exists. There is no excuse.

The most disturbing and spoken about part of this advert is the scene were Jenner hands a Pepsi to a police officer. Firstly, this insinuates that protest can be solved by soda, which is highly insulting (the internet has gone meme-crazy on this subject). Secondly, and most importantly, this contrived scene is clearly mirroring that of the real life hero Ieshia Evans who faced police in Baton Rouge:

2016: A Picture and its Story

Ieshia Evans was detained by law enforcement when she protested after the shooting (and death) of African American Alton Sterling near the headquarters of the Baton Rouge Police Department. Both prior to that incident and after that iconic photo was taken there have been countless protests in cities like Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri that occurred due to the police killing of black men. It has become an epidemic that is impossible to avoid on the news or on social media. There is no way Pepsi haven’t seen this image or heard of the protests.
Aside from the shocking claim that a can of Pepsi will create world peace, the contrast of ‘peace givers’ (Iesha and Kendall) is beyond insulting. Kendall is a white, cis, privileged, able-bodied, rich celebrity – if Pepsi wanted to create a peace-making, hero narrative they should’ve chosen an activist or a real-life hero.

DeRay McKesson, a leading activist in the Black Lives Matter movement said:

If I had carried Pepsi, I guess I never would have gotten arrested. Who knew? Pepsi, this ad is trash.

I couldn’t have said it better myself. In a world where violence and discrimination against African Americans has by no means decreased over the last century (if anything, it is getting worse), this has to be the most offensive, tone-deaf and contrived advert created during my lifetime.
What’s equally as perverse as using a real-life protest is the bizarre use of every token minority. The ad desperately tries to feature every single age, race, religion, gender, sexuality – whilst I praise diversity and inclusion in advertising, the clear attempt to show “co-existing” makes the Muslim woman and the “token-black-dude” stand out even more. It’s like they all sat at the casting couch and tried to tick off every single stereotypical type of person they could saying “yeah, she’s ethnic enough”.

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Pepsi’s exploitative brand social activism concept has been spoken about so much that according to data from Amobee Brand Intelligence, digital content engagement around Pepsi has increased to 366% in just a day, including mentions of Black Lives Matter, the use of the phrase “tone-deaf” and tagging the ad as the “worst ever.”
An incredible amount of people have spoken out against how Pepsi have exploited the enduring suffering of marginalised people, so I have no idea how Pepsi will ever come back from this. Yesterday, they removed the ad and released this apology on their website:

PURCHASE, N.Y., April 5, 2017 “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.”

I’m glad they have apologised, and that the ad has been removed, but I really hope this has been a huge wakeup call for advertising and marketing. I hope Pepsi get rid of their “creatives” and use ad agencies for the future. But, will anyone want to be associated with them? I guess if the price is right…
Pepsi claim that they did not intend to refer to any particular significant issues, but the notion of a protest itself is to make a stand against a social issue. So, what social were they trying to represent? All I see is cringey peace signs and random words. Trivialising protest in an age where people are desperate to see change is an insult beyond repair, in my eyes. I’ve written about jumping on the bang-wagon when it comes to social issues (such as using LGBT characters in ad narratives), and I find myself shaking my head in shame when the scenes cut to young, attractive people blatantly drinking Pepsi (got to get in that product placement) and laughing. This itself shows how the creatives involved have clearly never been involved in anything mildly political, because no one stands around posing, giggling and pouting at a protest. We even see a fist bump. A f*cking fist bump.

Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple Consulting said:

It’s trivializing the seriousness of the issue, that merely a can of Pepsi could solve all of the problems on the streets of our country. To some extent, it’s polarizing to the Black Lives Matter movement because it makes it seem like much ado about nothing, if you just passed some out at your demonstrations this wouldn’t happen.

Following this, something that also concerns me is the actors in the advert. Whilst it’s evident that the creatives themselves have no sense of privilege and suffering, why did the multi-cultural cast agree to take part in this ad? Did they not know the entire concept prior to filming? Were they desperate for their next big break? Did the mention of Kendall Jenner appear too appealing to turn down? It’s the same confused, cringe-worthy feeling I had when I saw African Americans defending Trump during the election. How can anyone from a marginalised group associate themselves with this?!

I could spend all day writing about what is wrong with this advert. There is nothing right about it, and if you can’t see how much of a disaster it is, you need to educate yourself and understand your own privilege. We will never move away from segregation, racism and violence if we don’t collectively stand up for what is right. This is beyond poor creative work – it’s a enormous, humiliating and derogatory kick in the teeth.

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