April 12, 2017
You may have heard that Pepsi recently released—and eventually pulled—an ad featuring model Kendall Jenner. The ad shows Jenner posing at a photo shoot on a city street as a multi-cultural group of young, cheerful protestors march by holding signs with slogans like “Peace” and “Join the Conversation.” She eventually casts of her glamorous dress and blonde wig and joins the crowd in natural makeup and jeans, then grabs a can of Pepsi and offers it to a policeman. (The crowd goes wild.)
Many criticized the ad for capitalizing on the popularity of political movements like the Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil Rights movement, because it showed a group of people engaged in some kind of protest—a potentially very dangerous act—that looked more like a low-key day at Coachella. The company later said in a statement that they were “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.”
Other companies have made statements in the media about political issues, rallying behind protestors against other controversial rulings: Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz pledged to hire 10,000 refugees, and companies from Nike to Kickstarter to Apple have spoken out against Trump’s “Muslim ban.”
Pepsi, however, didn’t take a stand for or against anything with this ad. Though it showed a group of diverse people seeming to be protesting something, it’s never clear what it is, and the upbeat tone of the ad is not at all based in the reality of political activism. It also makes one wonder how diverse the room of ad executives who approved this message was, revealing the importance of diverse perspectives in marketing and advertising. The more perspectives you have, the better chances of someone saying, wait a minute, this doesn’t seem right to me. The fact that this commercial got OK’s from enough people to be produced may point to a lack of diversity on their leadership team, an issue across many companies and industries.
With a platform as large and influential as Pepsi’s, making a political statement can be impactful – and put you at risk of losing some customers – if the company actually makes a statement. But what Pepsi did was attempt to capitalize on the popularity of activism without coming out for or against any of the issues people are protesting against. That isn’t brave – it’s like coming to the rally in sunglasses and a baseball cap, and the public saw through it. Brands can fire up a customer base by making a statement, or stay out of the conversation altogether – but you can’t have it both ways.