Pepsi’s Oopsies

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Pepsi is having a bit of a rough week. On Monday, the brand released a full 2:40 second version of an ad featuring Kendall Jenner. It planned to roll out a 60-second version worldwide in TV and several other cuts for digital activations. By mid day Wednesday, the brand pulled the ad and the buys altogether.

How could 36 little hours do so much? Well, let’s look at both sides of this.

Here’s the spot:

Okay. Let’s look at what you could consider as the bright sides of this ad.

  • It’s timely and topical.
    Protests and civic engagement have indeed become a part of our social fabric, here and abroad.
  • It’s multicultural, and gender equal.
    Never a bad thing.
  • It ultimately has a kind of positive aspirational tonality.
    An otherwise peaceful demonstration is rendered even more peaceful (I guess) with music, smiling, and the culminating action when the young woman (and all that the metaphor entails,) hands the police officer a can of Pepsi.
  • It puts the brand at the center of the action.
    That’s always a good idea.
  • It puts the brand in the center of the consumers it targets.
    Y
    outhful people – totally on strategy.
  • It would likely have appealed to many people around the world.
    There are millions of people who wouldn’t look beyond the surface of this, and would likely have seen it as a “nice little movie” that makes Pepsi look “relevant” or even “concerned” about what’s happening in the world.

That’s a lot of upside.

Now, to be fair, let’s look at the many down sides.

First, this is just a terrible piece of advertising. While all of us who practice in this business (and/or teach it,) can agree that it’s important to tell a story in your ads, we should probably mention that it’s important to tell a GOOD story. This ad tells a weird and disjointed set of stories that a.) don’t relate to one another very clearly and 2. ) don’t make a whole lot of sense. It sounds kind of like a bad bar joke: “An Asian cellist, a middle Eastern photographer and a socialite model walk into a protest…”

And, as far as plot, are we to believe that this otherwise unconcerned model on a photo shoot suddenly gets interested in the cause of the protest, (because Asian cellist hipster gives her a head bob,) and then joins it, only to be at the forefront of the central action in a matter of seconds? That’s kinda hard to believe, right?  It’s okay to stretch the truth in advertising – but it should be rooted in something that’s at least mildly feasible.

Second, the ad clearly co-opts the past several years of protest memories and tries to leverage them to its own gain. When Twitter blew up over this ad, most of the reaction was centered around the #blacklivesmatter theme, since that is our most open and infected social wound, and is (sadly) almost constantly in the news along with coverage of ensuing protests.

Pepsi decides to double down on the poorly conceived concept, and in the culminating scene, the star of the spot (Ms. Jenner) hands a police officer a can of Pepsi. Which seems and looks an awful lot like the very real and very terrifying moment when Ieshia Evans was arrested by officers in riot gear on the streets of Baton Rouge last July.

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Third, this ad is derivative on multiple levels. Hundreds of tweets mentioned the similarity of the spot to the first half of this Chemical Brothers video, which uses the protest scene as a vehicle for conveying chaos, passion, violence and yes, cola commercialism. But in that video, the commercialism is sort of mocked and shamed for its essence – a protestor later smashes a TV screen showing the “commercial” being parodied in the video.

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Remember the 1971 groundbreaking commercial, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke?” That, too, was multicultural, gender equal, timely and topical (it was sort of the middle innings of the hippie generation, but extracted a message of peace and “perfect harmony”,) and showed a cola brand at the center of the action. But without the need for the hyperrealism or cheap celebrity. Sure, it was a bit of commercial melodrama, but it was an ambitious and original idea, had a commissioned jingle we can all still sing in tune and – to provide context and even a little cover – it was more than 45 years ago.  Pepsi has had a long time to learn how to do this.

Fourth. The Kardashianification of America continues. Can we get past these people already?

But here’s the odd truth. Despite all the shortfalls of this ad, my guess is that there would have been millions of people who would have reacted positively to it. Because a lot of people don’t want to contemplate the harsh realities of life, and the provenances of the day’s socio-visual references. This ad would have simply gone down as schmaltz liquor for millennials, and half of them would have loved it.

Instead, we live in a world where Twitter is judge, jury and ad critic.  The ad never got to see the light of day.  And, in a discussion with my students last evening, another important point came up:  where was the agency of record in all of this?  This ad was created by Creators League Studio, an in-house content development team at Pepsi.  Perhaps they should have collaborated with their agency cohorts for some racial/cultural/how-to-do-an-ad-that-won’t-get-piled-on perspective?  Where was the grownup in the room? Where was the let’s-look-past-Pepsi perspective?

I fully understand and recognize that Pepsi is competing in a crowded marketplace, answering to shareholders, and trying to stay on the crest of every commercial wave. But ultimately, brands have a responsibility to the tens of millions of people who will be exposed to their messages. If you personify a protest as a social event that somehow gets “better” because and when a Kardashian joins it, then you’ve immediately devalued what a protest actually is: an often dangerous and sometimes necessary means of engagement and disruption and communication activation. A protest is a very real, very intense reality. To reduce it to a convenient advertising convention is just asking for trouble.

This is especially true when the protests in recent memory have ended in actual death for so many actual activists. Can you hear the souls of the departed from the Arab Spring crying out, “if only I had a Pepsi?” No. Very much no.

Okay. Off the soapbox. To make this a valuable teaching moment, let me just say this. If a company hands you the keys to their brand and a big fat budget, yes, tell a story. But tell a good one, with good characters, action and development.  And yes, celebrate the brand.  Heck, exaggerate the brand.  You can still do rom-com and sitcom and even cheesy melodrama. But remember who and what you are as a brand, and more importantly, what you are not.  And for fuck’s sake, TEST IT BEFORE YOU DROP IT.

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