Yesterday, Pepsi released its new ad campaign featuring model and reality personality Kendall Jenner that has immediately fizzled and fallen flat. (See what I did there?)
If you haven’t seen the spot in its entirety, click below to take a look.
The commercial not only shows Kendall Jenner’s blatant awareness of her privilege as a white woman living in America, but it shows her faux attempt to be the savior of this generation. After she is subtly persuaded by an attractive Asian male cellist to join a protest in process, she offers an armed officer a can of Pepsi - to which the crowd goes wild as he accepts and the problem of racism is magically solved forever.
But I can't put the full and complete blame on Jenner. She was just out here trying to get a check. Pepsi thought it would be cool to have art imitate life, so they took a page from the headlines, created a fake movement and put a white woman at the center of it all, charging her to “save” millennial humanity because, duh, white feminism. They did all of this by using people of color as props, glamorizing protesting and misrepresenting police involvement during such events which we know, historically, hasn’t always been as peaceful.
Y’all. How is it that in 2017 these major brands and companies are STILL completely tone deaf? Who was (or wasn’t) present in the marketing suite and thought that this particular treatment was okay to spend millions of dollars on, and to then share with the American people? What is this lackluster message of false hope saying to future generations who want to actually create change?
The most problematic frame in the entire commercial is when Jenner hands an ice cold Pepsi to an armed officer, to which he shrugs and gladly accepts because, why not?
You know what this frame strangely reminds me of? 28-year-old Ieshia Evans standing peacefully in the middle of a Baton Rouge street last summer, while armed cops ran up on her out of their own fear.
Again Pepsi, you tried it.
As a marketing and communications professional, it is my job to always think ahead of how messaging strategies and tactics are going to be perceived by the consumer. Whether I am drafting copy for a client or reviewing content edits created by a consultant, I am always keeping the end user at the top of mind, and how they are going to absorb and digest messaging that is intended to empower them. More importantly, I want to ensure that they have enough accurate information to then create their own thoughts and feelings from it.
Pepsi thought they could recreate a rather vivid memory of our culture’s recent history to increase sales of their product, all the while demonstrating they are socially conscious to a generation who strives to always “stay woke.” But in the end, their million dollar ad just ended up being insensitive, tasteless and sleeping on the real reason why people continue to fight for justice in these streets.
While I could continue to dwell on the negative, I want to do my due diligence as a practitioner and offer up a few suggestions that could serve as lessons learned for such an iconic brand like PepsiCola.
Here are the five things that Pepsi SHOULD have done in order to better execute their “Live Bolder, Live Louder, Live For Now” campaign:
Choose someone other than a Kardashian/Jenner to be the face of your “faux woke” campaign. When has Kendall Jenner EVER spoke out about issues of racial equality and police brutality? (That’s okay, I’ll wait.) I won’t speak to her character because I don’t know her personally, but from what I and the rest of the world know about her persona, she isn’t very involved in any type of movement. Now someone who might have been a much better choice for this ad campaign? Yara Shahidi. My little sister in my head has a proven track record for speaking out on everything from racial equality to politics to ambition. While I do believe she would have had many, many issues with the treatment as it currently stands, she would have been a more accurate representation of this progressive generation.
Make sure that there is more than one person of color in the room to help make final decisions. I can guess that there was probably one (maybe two) black ad or public relations executives present during the brainstorming stage of this project. Unfortunately because there continues to be a lack of our voices in positions of management at creative agencies and major corporations, here we are. This is so much bigger than diversity and inclusion, but it speaks to the necessity of adequate representation when it comes to marketing and advertising to communities of color. My fellow #blkcreatives - let this be a lesson to us all. If something doesn’t sit right with us in the planning meeting, it’s not going to sit right with our peers who have to watch/read/listen to the end result. If you see something, please don't be afraid to say something.
Don’t insult the intelligence of your consumer base. How many of you think that Pepsi performed a focus group before making the final decision on this ad? Anyone? Bueller? It’s astonishing to me that Pepsi didn’t consider the backlash they would receive from this ad, let alone approval from their fan base. A simple viewing of a rough draft of the commercial, followed by a short set of questions to a diverse group of millennials would have been an opportunity to test messaging and imagery, as well as overall tone and pitch of the advertisement. In situations like these, it’s important to think beyond the bottom line and be mindful of the ask you’re really making of your customer.
Acknowledge diversity, but don’t stereotype it. The black guy with the cornrows absolutely did NOT have to “hit them folks” upon the cop receiving his congratulatory Pepsi. The black woman did NOT have to have that knotty ass wig thrown at her, nor did she need to look as though she was the help. How come Asian man played the cello? Why were the white girls sitting at brunch complete oblivious to what what happening right in front of them? Is there a reason why the young Muslim woman was the only one capturing this moment on film? These are questions that need real answers. Representation will always be a major key, but it shouldn’t be exploited. For decades, Pepsi has been a brand that has celebrated uniquity among all people. This commercial chose to shine the brightest spotlight on everyone’s differences, without really providing clear context to why they were being displayed in the first place.
Stay in your damn lane. - Pepsi has always been a brand that acknowledges the influence of our culture’s young generation. However, not one person asked Pepsi to make a radical statement by putting Kendall Jenner in the midst of such a sensitive space like a protest with armed police officers. They didn’t do that with Beyonce or Britney, so why try it now? It’s okay to allow your marketing formula to evolve as a sign of the times, but if it ain’t broke - don’t break it.
My hope is always that other companies will learn from Pepsi's mistakes. Now more than ever, it is vital that brands take the steps necessary to ensure that their marketing and advertising efforts are not only visually appealing, but culturally sensitive and provide an accurate reflection of our society's ever-evolving landscape.
What were your thoughts on the Pepsi ad? Send me a tweet or comment below.
UPDATE: As of this afternoon, Pepsi has pulled the advertisement, and issued an apology.