Pepsi Miss the Mark | h2o | Creative Communications Ltd.
Pepsi Max's advert was released and there was a spectacular social media backlash. Users were quick to point out the potential insensitivity of using a protest to sell a product on behalf of a large global corporation.
advert, pepsi, pepsi max, cola, social media, digital marketing, marketing,
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Pepsi Miss the Mark

Pepsi Miss the Mark

Unless you didn’t look at the news or any social media on Thursday you will have seen some reference to Pepsi and their new advert. This was produced by Pepsi’s in-house creative team and features one of the Kardashian clan in the shape of supermodel Kendall Jenner. The advert sees Kendall at a fashion photo shoot where she becomes distracted by a passing protest that comprises a rainbow sea of happy, smiling faces. What controversial topic are these photogenic people having a wonderful time protesting? Trump? Women’s Rights? Racism? Nope, peace and love, a fairly generic and non-offensive topic. Some of the signs are almost laughable in their ‘beige-ness,’ ‘Join the Conversation’ and ‘Peace’ were some of the offerings on show. Aiming for gritty realism and holding up a mirror to the world clearly wasn’t the aim here.

A handsome and clearly minority-background-based man casually invites her to join in the ‘fun.’ Kendall grabs a cool, refreshing Pepsi from a convenient tray of ice, whips the blonde wig off her head and joins in. Upon reaching the front of the protest, she engages in what could be the most awkward fist/can-of-Pepsi bump in history, before presenting said can to a policeman who smiles and takes a long gulp. Hey, it’s thirsty work watching everyone have so much fun in what must go down as the most peaceful, good looking and fun protest ever. Everyone then proceeds to have a great time jumping around and shouting as this simple act of beverage provision has solved all of the world’s problems.

Pretty much as soon as the advert was released there was a spectacular social media backlash. Users were quick to point out the potential insensitivity of using a protest (even one as inoffensive as peace and love) to sell a product on behalf of a large global corporation. This provoked furious ire as there have recently been large scale protests for the Black Lives Matter movement against the police for excessive use of lethal force against African Americans. So suggesting that everyone coming together over a drink and everything being ok again cheapens the movement and indicates that a divisive and serious social issue isn’t a big deal.

Commentators have also pointed out that Pepsi is indicating that it takes a white supermodel to bring peace and that by showing the police in such a positive light it indicates that Pepsi is taking their side over the brutality issue. Other commentators added that Pepsi is a few years behind other brands (including arch-rivals Coca Cola) in rolling out a campaign celebrating diversity and unity, which made the sudden appearance of a protest advert appear exploitative and insincere.

The most serious criticisms claimed that a can of Pepsi calming everything down perhaps devalued or trivialised the serious issues that have been protested recently. Even Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice weighed in on the campaign, tweeting an image of her Father with the message ‘If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.’ Ouch.

In the wake of this stinging criticism, Pepsi initially backed their advert saying,

“This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.”

However, after a full day of almost universal criticism and being featured on almost every media forum, Pepsi revealed they were pulling the advert and cancelling the campaign

“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.”

Publically at least it appears that this advert was an unmitigated disaster. However, being cynical, we are wondering whether this may have been plan B. If Pepsi’s campaign wasn’t going to be lauded for offering a vision of unity in a time of protests, at least it achieved a level of infamy that arguably fulfilled its purpose, i.e get people talking and discussing the brand. Could it be a case of the famous cliché ‘no publicity is bad publicity?’ The advert certainly achieved a lot of attention. However, has their brand been damaged as a result?

We’re not so sure, will people absolutely refuse to purchase Pepsi anymore? Probably not. Did people believe that Pepsi was truly getting into the spirit of protests and supporting ‘The Resistance?’ Probably not. They are a multi-billion Dollar, global company who are every bit as profit-driven as their rivals Coca Cola. Our opinion is that they tried to tap into the zeitgeist and got it wrong. The advert will probably go down as a stinker and be forgotten in a couple of months. Pepsi will make something more generic and the Cola war will continue.

We do think that this ad almost has a statistics or focus group feel to it. We can almost imagine someone looking at a list of trending hashtags or Google Analytics data and saying “Protests, Kardashians and Trump and the top 3, we obviously can’t get the President, but 2 out of 3?”

Protesting is fundamentally a very emotive and passionate action. People don’t take to the streets unless they believe strongly in a particular cause. As a result, using a march as a vehicle to sell fizzy drinks has been seen as an attempt to cash in on a particularly troubled period of our history.

Looking at the current advertising and political climate over the last couple of months, a number of brands have taken a more political stance with their marketing to various degrees of success. Coca Cola’s call for unity with its multi-lingual version ‘America the Beautiful’ is clearly calling for racial harmony in a nationalistic climate. Uber and Lyft clearly occupy different sides of the political spectrum. The latter’s liberal mentality has seen them make inroads into Uber’s market share. Businesses have also voiced their opposition to the Trump presidency on social media.

In this more politicised era of marketing, when it is no longer enough to show smiling, attractive people enjoying your product, brands increasingly have to either stand for something. Or produce content that has sufficient shock or innovative value to make the content stand out. Given the fact that the advert shows protesters in a positive, albeit very generic way, could it be argued that this advert is supporting ‘the resistance?’ If you use this interpretation, it is a liberal, peace-promoting advert that is unfortunately very misguided. However, personally, we’re sticking with the focus group, zeitgeist idea.

The complex issues that surround the recent protests cannot, unfortunately, be solved by simply drinking a brown, sugary beverage, and suggesting so makes light of the original cause.

Agencies gleefully highlighted the fact that the advert was created by Pepsi’s own in-house creative department Creator’s League Studio. They sagely commented that such a travesty would never have occurred had Pepsi only come to an external agency. Whilst obviously if Pepsi had come to h2o, we would have produced the world’s greatest advert. We do think that agencies are relishing the appearance of a big stick with which to batter in-house teams, conveniently forgetting that agencies are also responsible for some absolute shockers.

On the plus side, it has produced some very funny memes…

                  A photoshopped version of the advert incorporating the Arsene Wenger campaign.
Megan Tyce
megan@h2o-creative.com