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Slammed Pepsi ad is proof advertising needs diversity

Another day, another social media storm, this time surrounding the new ad for Pepsi, which co-opts the activism “trend” to sell soda and gets literally everything wrong.

It’s not hard to see the reasoning behind the ad. Younger consumers are deeply passionate about social justice, with 88 per cent saying they would be loyal to a brand that supports the issues and causes they care about. So it makes sense that a brand would want to tap into this.

But this is one of the many areas where Pepsi falls down. Look at the people in the ad; what are they marching for? The diverse protestors carry signs adorned with peace symbols and bland slogans like “Love” and “Join the conversation.” The subject matter is so vague and inoffensive that it becomes toothless; it’s a scenario dreamed up by a committee that doesn’t have the guts to publicly support Black Lives Matter, or the Women’s March, or Standing Rock, or any of the highly publicised protest movements that are currently right at the forefront of the American psyche.

Then there are the deeply problematic optics. Kendall Jenner, a conventionally attractive, wealthy young white woman, is front and centre throughout — first in a blonde wig, framed as part of the “unwoke” establishment, and then later clad in denim with her natural dark hair colour, leading the protestors.

To centre a white woman not known for her public stance on social issues in an ad which seeks to profit from them, while relegating the people of colour and trans women who pioneered Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March to background characters, shows a profound lack of respect and understanding. There’s even an interstitial shot in which we see Jenner remove her wig and toss it to a black woman, as if to say “hold this.”

Then the video has Jenner approach a police officer, and hand him a can of Pepsi. He takes a sip, and the crowd begins to cheer!

It’s clear what the ad is trying to say. Pepsi is the beverage of the young, of the socially conscious, of the woke. Sadly, the internet disagrees. After the video appeared online, it was savaged by critics for its tone-deaf appropriation of activism and the transparent parallels between the image of Jenner offering the cop a Pepsi, and the now-iconic photograph of Black Lives Matter activist Ieshia Evans standing in front of police officers in Baton Rouge.

The Pepsi ad dropped just days after Nivea had their own easily-avoidable brand disaster, an Instagram spot which claimed “white is purity.” One can’t help but speculate that such an obviously racially insensitive ad would never have been approved, had there been a sufficient number of non-white people involved in the creative process.

And this is why advertising needs diversity. Not to be politically correct, or to fill quotas, but so brands stop embarrassing themselves by trying to dominate conversations about subjects and people they don’t understand. Had Pepsi started by truly trying to understand what their consumers care about, instead of jumping straight into a highly polished video shoot, the outcome might have been different. It’s not impossible to incorporate social issues and activism into entertainment; in fact, former Pepsi spokes-model Beyoncé did it to great critical acclaim. The difference? Black talent was everywhere in the ‘Formation’ video.

It isn’t necessarily a bad thing for brands to want to be involved in activism. They have the money and the influence to potentially drive real change forward. But throwing Muslim photographers, Asian cellists and transgender activists into the supporting cast of a Kendall Jenner publicity stunt is not the way to go about it.

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