It has been roughly two days since Pepsi launched its latest advertisement starring supermodel spokesperson Kendall Jenner… and more than one since it was pulled from the air and cut from all future rollouts.
As everyone with access to the internet knows by now, the reason for this quick stop is the backlash that came from the clear misalignment between Pepsi’s intended message of global unity and the final portrayal of that message through the ad, shown below.
After watching the ad, it is clear to see that Pepsi intended to comment on recent Anti-Trump and Black Lives Matter movements by offering a message of hope and togetherness. That in itself is not the problem – brands like Airbnb have commented on such movements through advertising, and have done so in a way that is representative of not only the movement, but the people directly involved in and impacted by it. Airbnb has proven to be authentic in its stance on multiculturalism by living its message of unity and stating it publicly through more than just the We Accept ad.
Pepsi, on the other hand, has been accused of capitalizing on the hardships of its consumers by not only using stereotypical portrayals of homosexual, black and Muslim populations in its creative, but by paying a celebrity like Kendall Jenner to represent them. The climax of the advertisement, when Jenner seemingly solves the unrest between police and protester through the offering of a Pepsi, did not end up offering a message of hope, but rather one that trivialized real-life hardships and the movements that have evolved from them.
So, what could Pepsi have done differently in the creation of this campaign in order to resonate with its audience in a more positive and powerful way? Just think of its biggest competitor.
Coca Cola has been spreading positive messages of acceptance since it released its Boys on a Bench ad in 1969. While today the advertisement might look normal, at the time it was the first piece of creative released by Coca Cola that featured both black and white people. To take their message of inclusion one step further, the boys in the ad are enjoying their bottles of Coke while sitting on a segregation bench – unsegregated. For decades now, Coca Cola has been broadcasting the message that Pepsi aimed to and ultimately failed at spreading this week.
For a brand to make social commentary that truly resonates with its audience in a meaningful way, without trivializing or disrespecting it, the message needs to come from an authentic place. Like Airbnb and Coca Cola, brands need to take a clear stance on an issue and be true in the actions that accompany a campaign. Pepsi’s clear lack of respect for diverse communities through this ad, while it was not their intention, shows a lack of deep care about the portrayed issues within the brand itself.
This required authenticity goes beyond the values of the brand internally and extends to the connection between brand and consumer. In both Airbnb’s We Accept and Coca Cola’s Boys on a Bench, real people are the ones featured and ultimately representing the statement at hand. In an age where brands are more accessible than ever through tools like social media, consumers expect to feel a connection with the companies they are most exposed to. Though Boys on a Bench was released long before the age of social media, it holds up as an example of social commentary that connects with an audience on a personal level. Consumers are aware that celebrities live very different lives than the general public. Therefore, their use in important campaigns regarding current social movements fought by everyday people, should be limited.
If there is one thing Pepsi should learn from this unfortunate misstep, it is that a brand’s intentions do not matter to the public if they stem from a misunderstanding or inauthentic place. Social commentary, when portrayed properly and with an authentic respect for the issue at hand, can be powerful. When social commentary goes wrong, like we witnessed this week, it is the voice of the audience – often the brand’s consumers – that takes the power position.