What Pepsi really got wrong

Pepsi pulls controversial Kendall Jenner ad
Pepsi pulls controversial Kendall Jenner ad

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Pepsi pulls controversial Kendall Jenner ad 00:59

Story highlights

  • On Wednesday, Pepsi pulled an ad featuring Kendall Jenner, in front of a group of protestors, offering a soda to a police officer
  • Barbara Lippert: No brand can appropriate sensitive political events without coming off as clueless and inauthentic

Barbara Lippert writes about media, advertising and politics in her "Mad Blog" at Mediapost.com. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)The revolution will be televised. But who knew it would come in the form of Kendall Jenner, a Kardashian fashion model, bringing peace to attractive street protestors by fearlessly offering a hunky riot cop a cold can of Pepsi?

The hokey restaging of recent political history -- including protest signs reading "Join the Conversation"-- was instantly attacked on the Internet for its insensitivity, specifically to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Barbara Lippert
"If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi," tweeted Martin Luther King's daughter, Beatrice A. King, under a black-and-white photo of her famous father being manhandled by police.
    The Internet backlash proved that advertisers cannot simply appropriate political movements or moments without having a more nuanced understanding of them. Doing so leads to an unwanted spotlight, as Pepsi experienced for two days this week.
    Indeed, in one of the quickest fizzles in advertising history, Pepsi pulled "Jump In," its lavish but radioactive two-and-a-half-minute global spot, less than 24 hours after its release on the Internet -- and before it ever got to run on TV.
    After the drama of the spot removal, Pepsi quickly issued a public apology. "Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding," the soft-drink-maker said in its statement. "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."
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    The unusual mea culpa delivered a sense of cultural whiplash. But it also kept the soda giant front-and-center in the news cycle for a second day -- this time, unfortunately, as the new poster brand for the tone-deaf and the un-"woke."
    One of the lessons learned from the Pepsi pile-on is that by simply relying on the alchemy of advertising, no brand or marketer can appropriate sensitive, and sometimes violent, political events without coming off as clueless and inauthentic. How much more so when the product is as ephemeral, effervescent and, yes, unhealthy, as Pepsi.
    But how did Pepsi take such an expensive misstep? All signs point to the heavily filtered corporate bubble that the thinking came out of. The spot is the work of the company's in-house agency, which perhaps wasn't as in touch with cultural realities as it thought.
    Certainly, with the recent presidential election and the increasing politicization of pop culture, many advertisers have tried to connect with consumers by showing how in tune they are with the new political mood -- one defined by a divided but activated population of all kinds of citizens.
    Playing to the political mood, however, is tricky business and requires that advertisers develop an appetite for controversy.
    At the most recent Super Bowl, held this past February, a whole host of marketers embraced politics: Pepsi rival Coca-Cola revived a spot from 2014, showing Americans of different skin colors, religions and ethnicities singing a multilingual version of "America the Beautiful." When it was first launched, it drew some flak as heavy-handed pandering to multiculturalism, but it took on new resonance this year after the issues raised in the election.
    Airbnb responded to the travel ban, recycling parts of a previous video in a last-minute spot with the tag line, "The world is more beautiful the more you accept." Budweiser got lots of online pushback for spotlighting the immigration story of one of its founders, and Audi ran an ad advocating equal pay for women.
    In the normal order of things, these are topics that advertisers would shy away from. But marketers also need to establish the cultural relevance of their brands.
    And Pepsi is no stranger to this marketing approach. It has featured several controversial ads in the past, including the extravaganza featuring Madonna, which had to be pulled when her music video showed burning crosses. And then there was the Michael Jackson spot, when he got burned during production -- literally, his hair set on fire -- which received nonstop attention across the globe.
    But in this case, the obvious pandering to millennials, many of whom are genuine activists and search out brands that are socially conscious, royally backfired.
    The biggest problem was the sheer cluelessness shown: The spot seemed to draw on a mish-mosh of recent and past historical events, some deadly and horrifying, and previous soda commercials.
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    The most tone-deaf ads ever? 01:54
    Coke's 1968 spot "Hilltop," the first true paean to world peace, for example, was offered to consumers as a suggestion -- "I'd like to buy the world a Coke"-- not as an historical appropriation. It followed a famous photo, taken during the 1960s protests, of a woman pushing a flower into the barrel of a gun held by a police guard.
    By contrast, Jenner's act of handing a can of Pepsi to a cop seemed to allude to an image captured in an iconic photo of a Black Lives Matter protest. The image, taken by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters, depicts protester Ieshia Evans calmly facing down a police line-up in full riot gear as she gets arrested.
    The thinking behind using a vapid social media star like Jenner to comment on such a hotly contested political issue, in the hopes of the commercial going viral, is truly disturbing. It seems that Pepsi was desperate for "social media cred" among millennials, but this is not how you buy it.
    Of course, Pepsi also apologized directly to Jenner. The daughter of Kris Kardashian and Caitlyn Jenner, who gets paid up to $300,000 by advertisers for a tweet, was "devastated," but not enough to have suggested that some of her fans might be offended by this particular script, nor to think of donating any part of her multi-million-dollar salary to charity.
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    Indeed, post-apology, one way to recoup their reputations would be for Pepsi and Jenner to donate funds to political groups combating racism.
    I predict this will be a mere blip in Pepsi history. With more and more people turning to more healthful drinks, selling sugary soda is a losing game. No mere commercial has the power to turn that reality around.
    On the bright side, at such a stressful and divided time in the country, for a two-day interlude, Pepsi did manage to bring us together -- black, white, old, young -- in a united howl over the amazing awfulness of one muddle-headed commercial.