Pepsi was heavily criticised for coopting resistance movements for profit and using Kendall Jenner to evoke Black Lives Matter in its new ad.
If it’s protest Pepsi wanted with its new ad, then that’s exactly what it got. The company’s new (and already withdrawn) short film featuring Kendall Jenner seems to have united legions of Twitter users and social commentators with just two minutes and 39 seconds of footage. A common sentiment about the ad being, ‘I knew it was going to be bad, I just didn’t think it would be quite this bad.”
We get it, Pepsi executives had a difficult choice to make. The US has been going through a tumultuous time for a while now – first Occupy Wall Street, then Black Lives Matter, then more recently the protests against Donald Trump’s travel (read Muslim) ban, and let’s not forget the iconic Women’s March that took place in Washington and dozens of other cities across the world.
So the obvious solution was to really distill the main goals behind these protests, strain out the outrage, anger, violence and danger that comes with challenging the establishment, and keep the fun bits like being part of a community, a carnivalesque taking over of public spaces, meeting new people, drinking some chilled Pepsi..
The resulting video shows cis, white, rich, conventionally attractive, privileged Kendall Jenner casually skip out of a photo shoot because she sees a crowd of diverse young people (millennials) laughing, walking through the streets, carrying signs saying “peace” and “join the conversation”. Obviously, she’s moved to take part in this social change movement. She nods at the young, attractive Asian musician who beckons her to join the crowd with a nod of his head, and makes her way to the front of the column of people where a row of grim looking police officers are blocking the crowd’s path. Jenner hands one of the cops a Pepsi can, he cracks a smile, the crowd cheers. Voila! World peace has been achieved. All it took was a rich white woman with a Pepsi can.
While many have analysed why the ad is so “tone deaf and vapid,” the most succinct critique has come from civil rights leader, Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice King.
Others on Twitter turned to the medium most perfectly suited to our current moment: memes.
On a fundamental level, Pepsi and Jenner have promoted the idea that protesting is a fun millennial activity that can be appropriated by a large brand to attract new consumers. However, protestors, like King, more often than not don’t receive the benefit of doubt when they approach policemen. Instead they are violently pushed back with physical force, tear gas, water hoses, barricades, arrests.
And so people who participate in protests prepare for these situations by carrying water bottles to stay hydrated during the long hours outdoors and rags to cover their noses and mouths in case they’re tear gassed.
Writer, social worker and activist Feminista Jones told Ad Week that Pepsi should have consulted people with relevant experience before making the ad. She said, “The organizers, protesters, educators … all of those who have been instrumental in bringing about these recent movements for justice. Brands should never make light of social issues related to people’s suffering; they should, instead, focus on selling their products in ways that don’t exploit the pain and suffering of marginalized people.”
But Jenner in the ad doesn’t have to worry about any of this. As Eric Thomas, a brand specialist in the US, wrote in a LinkedIn post, “It’s almost as if, for some strange, certainly not racial, ethnic, heteronormative, European standard of beauty-like reason she is seen as no threat to them. And so she hands this officer the Pepsi. A sign of peace, hope, and possibility.”
The coopting of Black Lives Matter is blatantly visible in the scene in which Jenner hands the policeman a can of Pepsi. Multiple viewers were quick to point out that the scene replicates the iconic picture of protestor Ieshia Evans standing peacefully as she was charged and arrested by armoured policemen in Baton Rouge last year.
As this Elle article says, focusing on rich, white supermodel Jenner as she stands in the position of a Black Lives Matter protestor “feel egregious” and “as if someone saw that photo, immediately forgot about it, and then recalled something in a dream about a woman standing in front of the cops with no political implications.”
Thomas too takes a guess at how something like this was conceptualised, then approved and funded by various people. He writes, “Somewhere in the upper levels where this commercial was approved, one of two things happened. Either there was not enough diversity — race, gender, lifestyle, age or otherwise — or worse, there was a culture that made people uncomfortable to express how offensive this video is.”
While this Pepsi ad is glorifying (and trivialising) protest movements, not so long ago, the same company took out an ad for its Indian market which mocked protestors.
The ad depicts a group of men on hunger strike, and as their leader is giving an interview on TV, one of the strikers succumbs to a chilled bottle of Pepsi, bringing down the cause remorselessly. Why worry about social justice or peace and equality or any of the generic goals inscribed on the boards in the Jenner ad when you can just drink some Pepsi?
While Jenner has remained mum on the whole episode, Pepsi has pulled the ad, putting a stop to its global broadcast plans (what a waste of its universally appealing message).
The quick action was probably prompted by the magnitude of the negative attention the ad was getting Pepsi and Jenner. Ad Week reported:
According to data from Amobee Brand Intelligence, digital content engagement around Pepsi has increased significantly (366 percent in just a day), but 43 percent has mentioned Black Lives Matter, 31 percent has labeled the ad as “tone-deaf” and 10 percent has tagged it as the “worst ever.” Amobee also looked at content engagement around the term “tone-deaf” in the last day, and 77 percent of digital content using the term mentioned Kendall Jenner and Pepsi.
But on the bright side, Dylan Williams, chief strategic officer at advertising agency Droga5 told The Guardian, “For me, the most refreshing thing about today is that everybody hates it.”