Why Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad gets it so wrong

Pepsi gets political in its latest ad campaign, which stars Kendall Jenner. And judging by the reaction from the public, it’s a move the brand may well regret.

Pepsi has released a new, blockbuster ad, starring Kendall Jenner. The decision to feature a young supermodel in its advertising is nothing new – Pepsi has been tapping pop culture talent to market its wares since the 80s – but what is different here is the scene that Jenner is asked to act out.

The ad, which is by PepsiCo’s in-house content creation arm, Creators League Studio, opens with the model engaged in a photo shoot, though she quickly becomes distracted by a civil rights protest march that is taking place nearby. Unlike many protest marches though, this is a largely cheery, and highly fashionable event, with young people smiling and dancing while carrying signs featuring Pepsi’s brand colours and messages such as ‘love’ and ‘join the conversation’.

Unable to resist joining in, Jenner removes her wig and make up (read: becomes her truly authentic self), and marches alongside the others. By the end of the spot, she has made her way to the front of the protest, and we see her confronted by police. But she immediately diffuses any potential tension by handing a nearby cop a Pepsi, which he cheerily sips, while the crowd cheers.

Pepsi Kendall Jenner
Jenner before her political awakening
The protest crowd. Note: the banners all suspiciously conform to Pepsi brand colours
A cop realises the power of Pepsi to bring peace

There are many things to get upset about here, and Twitter – of course – has covered them all, with zest. Many viewers have pointed out how the ad belittles the Black Lives Matter movement and the offensive comparison between Jenner’s stance at the end of the ad with the iconic photograph from last year of Ieshia Evans standing in front of riot police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Others balk at the general notion that a sugary soft drink can play a part in complex societal problems.

Advertising is reductive by nature – it attempts to take big concepts and ideas and then apply them in a simple fashion to selling products. Success in this is all about tone. It is worth pointing out that Pepsi is not the first soft drinks brand to co-opt politics in its advertising: in the 1970s Coke created Hilltop, an ad that at its core implied that all the world’s problems could be solved by people getting together and sharing a Coke. Popular at the time, this spot still regularly tops the charts as one of the best ads of all time.

So what makes the Pepsi ad feel so tone deaf in comparison? Perhaps it is the specificity of it. In February CR published a piece reporting on the current trend for brands to bring politics into ads, and debated the pros and cons of this. One of the major cons is the risk that by bringing contemporary political issues into advertising, the urgency of the real problems at hand will be diminished.

Pepsi Kendall Jenner
Reactions to the ad on Twitter
Pepsi Kendall Jenner
Pepsi Kendall Jenner

Whereas Coke’s message was one of general unity and togetherness, Pepsi has dived right into a difficult, upsetting, still developing political situation that – big idea, or no big idea – it has nothing to do with. It even appears to suggest that the current political frustration being expressed in protests is simply a fashion movement, nothing more serious or heartfelt than that.

Plus, we are generally more cynical and brand savvy nowadays. If brands really want us to ‘join the conversation’, they need to show that they actually understand what it is that people are already talking about. And that means going beneath the cloying, fatuous, surface gesture that Pepsi is offering up here.

UPDATE: Pepsi has pulled the ad from its official channels. In a statement, the brand said: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologise for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

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