April 5th, 2017 – When you put a Kardashian or a Jenner in a TV spot, you’re sure to get attention. But when Pepsi decided to put Kendall Jenner, a white supermodel who rose to fame through her reality TV family, as the hero of a protest movement who easily solves race relations with police by handing an officer a can of soda, you get backlash.
Pepsi felt the wrath – and the satire – of many after their controversial ad was released Tuesday on YouTube. The company has framed the spot by 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 import message to convey.”
However, what people saw when they watched the ad was a message that felt tone-deaf, offensive and belittling. Many have accused the ad of appropriating a real, complex problem for sales without owning a genuine belief on an issue.
Adweek’s Digital Managing Editor David Griner spoke to IsItFOO about how advertisers draw the line between attaching a social message and offensively appropriating something.
“Honestly, most brands have handled this era of activism quite well so far. They either stay out of it, or they take a clear stand that, while potentially divisive like Airbnb’s open call for inclusiveness or Expedia’s celebration of multi-culturalism, defines their values as a company,” he wrote. “The key is to reflect your own beliefs, not co-opt someone else’s. That approach is doomed to be hollow and cringe-inducing.”
While the ad found many hollow moments – the smiling, happy-go-lucky vibe of the protestors, the calm, non-riot-gear-wearing police, the dramatic wig rip/lipstick smear from Jenner – the climax of the spot is what has drawn the most criticism.
Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer and after a few beats, he takes a sip, smiles and the crowd erupts in shared applause and adulation. Viewers have paralleled that moment to a widely-shared photo of Black Lives Matter protester Ieshia Evans as she was detained by police at a July 2016 demonstration in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
if only she’d given them a pepsi pic.twitter.com/rVM8jkJrG4
— darkwing duck fan (@vmochama) April 4, 2017
Social media users were quick and all too creative with their responses to Pepsi. As the jokes and the pointed critiques continued, Griner maintains that the backlash isn’t exaggerated.
“The backlash certainly gets amplified because of social media, but in this case I wouldn’t say it’s overblown,” he said. “A major corporation tried to turn a defining, divisive and painful moment for our nation into a low-stakes squabble that could be defused with a can of soda. It’s supremely dumb, and no one should be surprised people raised hell about it.”
Raise hell they did. Twitter exploded with photoshopped images, calls for boycotts and a reminder of the actual black experience.
Lmao Pepsi’s new ad Kendall Jenner ‘ends racism’ by handing police men a Pepsi – way to degrade 50 yrs of black/minority struggle
— Hanorah (@HanorahHardy) April 4, 2017
pepsi you need this disclaimer pic.twitter.com/x8XmT59Vpf
— Matt Dxgges (@sequentialmatt) April 4, 2017
i get it now. if black lives matter protesters would’ve handed a pepsi to the cops they wouldnt of gotten tear gassed. it’s so clear now.
— quinta b. (@quintabrunson) April 4, 2017
If only Kendall Jenner had been around to give George Zimmerman a Pepsi.
— Rob Fee (@robfee) April 5, 2017
I AM SCREAMING pic.twitter.com/3aWFdvmz5j
— reggie (@1942bs) April 4, 2017
— David Weiner (@daweiner) April 4, 2017
“Is Pepsi ok?”
“No, it’s actually kind of offensive.”
— Kashana (@kashanacauley) April 4, 2017
*gets in time machine to august 9th 2014*
*goes in convenience store*
*buys mike brown a pepsi*
mike: what’s this for?
me: just trust me
— Zachary Fox (@zackfox) April 5, 2017
— Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) April 5, 2017
— Will (@YeahItsWilly) April 5, 2017
— ColorOfChange.org (@ColorOfChange) April 5, 2017
As Vann R. Newkirk II put it “Wow Pepsi’s ‘Black Soda Matters’ campaign is off to a bad start. For Pepsi and Jenner, before the airing they were quoted as being “super proud” and “honored” of the ad.
UPDATE: Shortly after publishing this article, Pepsi released a statement apologizing for the ad and announcing its decision to stop its circulation saying “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”