By: Bethlehem Gebre
Last week, Pepsi made headlines on social media for its most recent ad campaign featuring reality TV star and model Kendall Jenner. After facing backlash on social media, Pepsi immediately pulled the ad.
The ad depicted Jenner going through the motions of a typical day. On this particular day, she is filming a photo shoot. After a few poses, she notices a commotion outside and leaves to investigate. Jenner then discovers that the people outside are part of a protest. She takes off her wig and joins the crowd. Jenner realizes she wants to be a part of the fun and rushes to the front lines of the protest. Seeing the divide between the civilians and police, she crosses the threshold between the two groups and hands a police officer a can of Pepsi, thus releasing the tension and causing everyone to cheer. With police brutality being such a prominent issue in the media today, this ad seemed timely and appropriate.
However, there are several problems with this ad.
The use of Kendall Jenner to convey a message centered around activism
Kendall Jenner has proven to be a successful reality star and fashion icon. However, it is unclear as to why she was used for an advertisement with a social activism theme. Jenner lacks a background in activism and it seems that she was used in the ad solely for her fame and social media presence. As any introductory communications class will teach you, it is not enough to simply use any celebrity to promote a message. The celebrity must also be a pragmatic fit for both the brand and its message. While it seemed that brands could never go wrong with using a Kardashian or Jenner in an ad campaign, this ad demonstrated that no celebrity is a “one-size fits all,” which Pepsi’s PR team could have determined with thorough market testing.
The inadvertent exposure of issues with activism today
Although this isn’t so much a problem, it is an important point to make. The Pepsi ad almost serves as a metaphor for a major flaw with present-day activism. Activism is too often portrayed as a trendy extra-curricular activity, rather than a much more serious commitment that requires a genuine and profound passion for a certain issue. Many times, people are more concerned about being able to say that they were a part of history than actually making a positive difference. Similarly, celebrities like have been criticized time and time again for attempting to complete community service work simply to acquire positive press. As the ad clearly displays, Jenner is more concerned about her work as a model until she notices that people are more interested in the protesting. Only at this point does she realize that she wants to partake in the protest.
Furthermore, it shows how celebrity presence can potentially undermine the seriousness of a social or political issue. Pepsi had the opportunity to use a political issue to unite Pepsi fans, create positive buzz about Pepsi, and garner attention to a pressing issue in America. However, its PR department failed to do so because it failed to accurately depict the disconnect between those who are and are not affected by the various social issues in America. Kendall Jenner represents the privileged 1% of the population that is left unaffected by the majority of social issues in America. Additionally, Jenner, along with the rest of her family, has been under fire for years due to their lack of activism despite their level of influence around the world. The fact that Jenner only decides to join the protesters in the ad when she realizes that they’re not paying attention to her only furthers this notion. This ad could almost serve as a satirical piece to describe pseudo-activism today. Overall, the use of this particular celebrity harmed instead of helped the Pepsi brand.
The trivialization of activism
Activists, including those involved with the #BlackLivesMatter, #NODAPL, and the Women’s March, understand the risk of getting involved in protests, especially those with police involvements. Protesters in recent years have been arrested, teargassed, pelted with rubber bullets, shot at with freezing water cannons, and even killed. However, in the Pepsi ad, protesters were shown laughing and having fun as though it were a pep rally. The concept of white privilege is defined by Jenner’s ease while handing a police officer a Pepsi can, seeming to suggest that ending societal problems is as simple as handing a police officer a Pepsi can. This insulted a number of people, particularly those who have dealt with the real-life risks and ramifications of activism. This was even noted by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Bernice King on Twitter, who tweeted “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi” with a picture of police pushing her father during the Civil Rights protests in the 60s.
Pepsi immediately responded on Twitter with an apology.
Bernice King responding to the Pepsi ad. Photo from Twitter.
Manipulating various minority groups to convey Pepsi’s message
Pepsi’s message seemed forced, at best. Pepsi was intent on including people that belonged to various protected classes (the Muslim woman wearing the hijab, the black people, and the LGBTQIA+ activists for example), which made sense from a PR perspective. However, it became problematic at a few points within the ad. For example, Kendall threw her blonde wig off and made the black woman next to her hold it. This caused some to interpret this action as a reference to the double standard with women of color and white women (particularly alluding to the notion that wigs are less socially acceptable when they are worn by women of color). It also symbolizes the strategic placement of a multicultural group of people to create an illusion of inclusivity despite a lack of true interest in diversity or inclusion. While this is something that many brands inconspicuously accomplish, Pepsi so blatantly exposed its disregard that it came off as disrespectful.
Ultimately, individuals began to declare boycotts on Pepsi to express their outrage. However, as others were quick to point out, doing so would also mean abstaining from enjoying several other Pepsi products, including Doritos. This is because PepsiCo, the parent company of Pepsi, is also the owner of many other companies, including Pizza Hut, Dole, Frito Lay, Taco Bell, and Quaker Oats. This widespread discovery led to further frustration with Pepsi and Kendall Jenner, citing that she capitalized on the blood, sweat, and tears of bona fide activists and minority groups.
However, if anything, this controversy serves as an excellent lesson to PR professionals. A spokesperson should always match the brand and message of the campaign. Brands should always test their ads on people with not only their target demographics, but also other demographics to avoid alienating a portion of its audience. Most of all, a brand should be genuine in addressing an issue if it chooses to include it in a message. If the brand does not have a true interest in the issues that it is trying to address in its messaging, it will show in the final product, which is what occurred with this Pepsi ad.