April 11, 2017

By David Morse, President and CEO of New American Dimensions

By now you’ve heard about the floridly tone deaf Pepsi ad. You know, the almost three minute ad, what Pepsi called a mini movie, where, at the end of a multicultural protest – about something – the young model Kendall Jenner offers a Pepsi to a police officer among a line of riot officers. When he cracks open the Pepsi, all those multicultural millennials cheer and embrace. Because the sound of a Pepsi can opening apparently solves everything – racism, homophobia, gender inequality, maybe something else – and it even turns a self-absorbed model into a leader in the fight for… um… peace, hope, and beautiful models?

Pepsi did bring people together, in hatred of their stupid commercial. The Twitter jokes and GIFs about the train wreck of a commercial will brighten your day.  

Pepsi was inserted into photos of iconic civil rights moments, like a woman holding a Pepsi up to a tank at Tiananmen Square. A 1960s photo of cops about to beat a black man, with the caption, “Kendall, please give them a Pepsi!” Some people expressed outrage, accusing Pepsi of appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement.

After letting it hang out there and stink up the airwaves for a day, Pepsi pulled the ad.  They released an apology that didn’t actually stink:

"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."

It was direct, and the company accepted responsibility and acknowledged that they missed the mark. Fine. The blowback won’t hurt Pepsi’s bottom line. The ad agency, however, might be another story.

Every fiasco is a potential teachable moment. In this case we might want to explore how can a company with vast advertising resources be so completely tone deaf? Think about it. This is a campaign that could only be created by the biggest committee possible. The groupthink in that room or rooms where this was green-lit must have been intense.

Pepsi and the people behind the ad surely weren’t trying to make light of important issues, even though that’s how it came off. In promoting peace and union and harmony – through drinking Pepsi of course! – the creative team made the least offensive ad they could. I admit that it’s very tricky, though probably not impossible, to develop a Pepsi ad that doesn’t appropriate and dumb down significant social justice issues at all.

It’s possible that they were trying to do a modern update of the 1971 “hilltop” Coke ad.  That ad has been taught in college courses for decades. There’s a little bit of alchemy in developing a memorable and moving – and not offensive – creative campaign. But there are some practical considerations, too.

Here’s one thing I’m pretty sure of, though. Most of the people who conceived this commercial/mini-movie were white, male and not millennials.  There’s a 3 percent conference, which is based on the statistic – it's a little higher now – that only 3 percent of creative directors in ad agencies were women. Only two percent of creative directors are black.

You have to source material to people who understand the experience. It happens in Hollywood too. Take the success of the recent film, “Get Out,” the hybrid horror/social satire film about a terrifying experience of being a black man in a sea of white people. “Get Out” couldn’t have been written by a white man. It comes from the mind of someone who has lived that culture. A typical white Hollywood executive wouldn’t have written it and wouldn’t have green-lit it.

Maybe the next company that screws up as bad as Pepsi should hire “Get Out” creator Jordan Peele to make their apology ad.



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