Pepsi has discovered that following the “trend” is not always a prosperous decision after pulling their newest commercial. The ad drew on imagery relating to recent protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, showing relatively attractive younger people of all races marching with peace signs. The climax of the commercial was when Kendall Jenner, a white woman, hands a police officer a can of Pepsi and he happily takes it.
The Internet exploded. Activists felt the ad trivialized their experiences with police brutality. As the New York Times reported, “Elle Hearns, the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and formerly an organizer for Black Lives Matter, said the ad ‘plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilizing protests.’” People have also compared the image of Jenner approaching the line of officers to a widely shared photo of Ieshia Evans, “a black woman who stood firm while being charged by riot police during a protest against police brutality in Baton Rouge, La., in July.”
After pulling the ad, Pepsi released a statement: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
Besides the negative reactions from social media, the media in general has taken the opportunity to analyze the event. The Washington Post focused on the fact that Pepsi apologized to Jenner despite the fact that she was paid for the ad and made the decision herself to sign on. The Post interviewed Brooke Duffy, a Cornell professor who focuses on media and gender, who said by apologizing to Jenner, the brand was falling back on the an old sexist notion that “young women don’t actually know what they’re doing.” Duffy stated in the interview, “She has an incredible amount of clout and brand power… They’re giving her no agency when she clearly willingly participated.” Instead, the apology should have been directed towards protesters and the movement itself.
There are people making the claim that this is good for Jenner, while others say this is actually positive for Pepsi. Patrick Hanlon wrote an article for Forbes arguing that no, Kendall Jenner did not just “blow up her brand.” He claims, “The Kardashian brand is about outrageous provocation intended to create controversy and clicks,” and that Kendall Jenner is now the most talked-about individual in her family of talked-about individuals. He states that this is a problem for Pepsi, “which is suffering its worst public relations moment since Michael Jackson set his hair on fire.” Not everyone agrees with him, however. The Atlantic published an article boldly stating, “Pepsi’s new ad is a total success.” In essence, it takes the stance that no PR is bad PR, asserting, “It’s possible to understand the Pepsi protest as a march for the power of Pepsi branding instead of social justice.” Pepsi was placing the consumer in a more important role than the citizen. Instead, the purpose is to “position Pepsi as a facilitator in the utopian dream of pure, color-blind consumerism that might someday replace politics entirely.”
In the aftermath, CNET looked at “what to do when social media roasts your ad.” They asked SparkCentral, which has helped companies like Delta and Nordstrom after social media debacles, what to do in this situation. “‘It’s important to get ahead of the problem,’ said Anaal Patel, SparkCentral’s vice president of marketing. ‘The earlier you can address it and have a strategy for how your company will respond to it, the better.’” Because Pepsi took over 24 hours to respond, there were by that time plenty of critical tweets and memes circulating. It’s also important to not send “canned responses” because it will color any kind of response as disingenuous.
Pepsi isn’t the first company to attempt to engage in politics through ads, nor will it be the last. With the current turbulent atmosphere, there is almost an expectation for companies to make a political statement and engage in “advertising activism.” However, Pepsi’s struggle proves that the possible public relations backlash is very real and very sizeable. It begs the question of whether or not it is worth the risk of appearing tone-deaf in order to create a potentially topical ad.