Pepsi just released one of the most tone-deaf, vapid, reaching commercials I’ve seen in my lifetime. Not just because it’s pathetic, pandering, and preposterous, but because it misses the mark in so many ways I lost count.
In the pantheon of offensive media, this is the holy grail. The Magnum opus. A love letter to disconnectedness. This is the Philosopher's Stone of crap media. They turned gold back into lead. As a millennial, I found myself frustrated. As an African American, I found myself watching mouth agape as Pepsi reduced very real challenges that we experience as a community to ‘a couple of guys in need of a Pepsi.' When it ended, my business partner and I just sat in silence for about 30 seconds trying to piece together what we saw. Then we watched it again to make sure we were not overreacting.
As a storyteller and brand strategist, there are lessons in this. But as human beings, we must fight for more understanding. So to those points, let’s break down where Pepsi went wrong.
The Anatomy of a Train Wreck
Firstly, the Kardashian family are the poster children of modern cultural appropriation. From “boxer braids” or the sudden acceptance of curves and full lips, the Kardashians have made millions off of features that African American and Hispanic people had previous been made to feel ashamed of. To make Kendall Jenner the face of, largely ethnic, protests is yet another slap in the face. A caucasian, blonde, classically beautiful, affluent, kid born into celebrity probably isn’t the person you need to represent struggle and civil unrest.
Here we have Kendell Jenner, just trying to enjoy her photoshoot. She finds herself mildly intrigued, but hardly moved by the hundreds (if not thousands) of protesters fighting for their rights, civil liberties, and in many cases, their rights to live. Unfazed, she continues to be as cute as possible, as not to let this small distraction pull her away from her more important duties.
This is the first, but certainly not the last, haphazardly shoehorned in product shot of Pepsi. Forced into our gaze by yet another unfazed citizen. The crowd of freedom fighters is not enough to stop her from enjoying her fresh, crisp, cold Pepsi. No siree-bob. It’s Pepsi o’clock. Who has time for a revolution?
It was at this moment we realize that no one that contributed to this production has ever been to a protest or felt the tension that hangs in the air when lives are at stake. There are literally people behind these two young ladies, calling for respect and attention. Instead, they get glammed up, grab an onlooker and pose for a beauty shot. "Who needs change when we’ve got eyeliner and hashtags!?"
In a photography studio, we find the only person with an ounce of negative emotion. She’s sufficiently ethnic and driven into a state of rage by not being able to find the perfect inspiration for her photos. Incidentally, she has the same face most of us will after watching this commercial. Foreshadowing? Maybe.
Ah yes, here we go. The only thing that can compel Kendall to join the fight for equal rights and lives. A cute guy. He’s just a little rough around the edges but absolutely cute enough to risk your life over.
Beauty shot! The graphics go into high gear and Kendall magically becomes a little more ethnic -- for dramatic effect of course.
There we spot a black woman absolutely shocked that Kendall would sacrifice this big time photoshoot to join this causeless and ambiguous protest. She. Is. Livid. No matter, Kendall don’t care. She has a man to catch and a war to stop, with a little help from her secret weapon.
Time to pander to the LGBTQ+ community.
Time to pander to the generically ethnic, possibly foreign, and religious communities by showing we can all “Co-Exist."
In 30 seconds, and with the help of a costume change, Kendall is suddenly the de facto leader of an uprising. So she does what any self-respecting, empowered woman would do. She looks to her new boyfriend for the go ahead. After she gets his blessing, she grabs a Pepsi and charges into battle.
After a few more congratulatory head nods and fist bumps from men of various brown hues, she channels the spirit of Ieshia Evans, who heroically risked her life to stand up to the Swat teams bearing down on protesters in Baton Rogue. This is certainly the same sort of thing.
Strangely enough, something about Kendall Jenner makes her unique equipped to stare down the looming law enforcement. 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.
Everyone celebrates. The crowd goes wild. The police have been tamed and racism, xenophobia, the politics of fear, and Islamaphobia have been vanquished. And with that, we are all left to wonder.
“Wait, what just happened?"
This is what happens when you don’t have enough people in leadership that reflect the cultures that you represent. 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. Unfortunately for Pepsi, millennials have hyper-advanced B.S. detectors and they went off very quickly. Twitter has been merciless.
If you are going to market to millennials, remember that you’re going into an open forum. This is not a one-way conversation. This generation is especially brutal when it comes to being patronized or talked down to. The narrative of a young person being compelled into action by the passion of her peers and empathy for the challenges experienced by others could have been amazing. The story of a young girl, lightly encouraged by a cute guy into handing a Pepsi to a police officer as a sign of “peace we can buy.” Not nearly the same thing. You could almost hear the brand managers at Pepsi whispering into the director's ear,
“...show more Pepsi”
Honestly, If we are going to move toward ethical business practices and compassionate marketing then we have to realize taglines, Instagram models, and big spend ad buys are not going to do it. True cultural sensitivity and self-awareness is the only way. That can only be done by diversifying our leadership and giving opportunities to new talent from all across the global and socio-economic ladder. Either that or we’ll just have a Coke instead.
In a shocking turn of events, Pepsi actually pulled their ad. In another revelation, they released an apology that I'm actually a fan of.
"Pepsi was 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."
It's very direct, they accept responsibility, and they acknowledge missing the mark. Pepsi even takes the heat off of poor Kendall Jenner who is painted as a casualty of a misguided attempt at "unity through advertising." The swift hand of internet justice strikes again.
Follow or connect for more articles on Branding, Marketing, Business, and Diversity.