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Pepsi delivers a clueless apology for a clueless ad

Source: AdWeek based on video from Pepsi and YouTube

Pepsi’s launched a poorly thought out, protest-themed commercial starring Kendall Jenner. Actual protesters protested the commercial, and Pepsi withdrew it. But Pepsi’s apology is as mild and clueless as its commercial — and demonstrates how advertisers had better steer clear of political minefields.

The ad is set in a diverse street protest clearly based on Black Lives Matter or the Women’s March. The protestors appear to be having a blast, shouting and smiling in slow motion on a wonderful sunny day. The protest draws in a diverse set of young people, including a musician of some unspecified non-white ethnicity, a Muslim photographer, and eventually, Kendall Jenner, who bails in the midst of a classy outdoor modeling session. Naturally, the flawless model takes her place at the head of the protest and charms even the police who are maintaining order. Here’s the video — judge for yourself:

What’s wrong with this ad?

If you’re not in tune with what the street protests of the last twelve months are trying to accomplish, you might not see what’s wrong here. This is far from the most offensive or exploitive ad ever made by a mainstream company (GoDaddy and Carl’s Jr. probably get that prize). The problem is that it takes the angry, fierce, and serious business of political opposition and turns it into a celebration with an entitled white person at the front. Kendall Jenner co-opts the protest in the ad, just as Pepsi is co-opting the protest movement for its own commercial purposes. (To understand why that feels wrong, imagine that the ad instead had African-American protesters handing out Pepsi as they marched on Selma and got their heads bashed in 1965.) Not a good idea.

This AdWeek article has some perfect quotes about Pepsi’s mistake:

  • “It’s trivializing the seriousness of the issue, that merely a can of Pepsi could solve all of the problems on the streets of our country. To some extent, it’s polarizing to the Black Lives Matter movement because it makes it seem like much ado about nothing, if you just passed some out at your demonstrations this wouldn’t happen.” — Allen Adamson, founder of Brand Simple Consulting.
  • “Ridiculous ad. Shows no awareness of the protesters’ mindset or environment. Feels completely dishonest and contrived. Was clearly done by people who have not attended a protest or spent time on the streets and have no understanding of the pent-up anger.” — Edward Boches, professor of advertising at Boston University.
  • This is what happens when you don’t have enough people in leadership that reflect the cultures that you represent. .  . . Somewhere in the upper levels where this commercial was approved, one of two things happened. Either there was not enough diversity—race, gender, lifestyle, age or otherwise—or worse, there was a culture that made people uncomfortable to express how offensive this video is. Unfortunately for Pepsi, millennials have hyper-advanced B.S. detectors and they went off very quickly.” — Eric Thomas, senior partner and brand specialist at Saga MKTG.
  • “Pepsi should have consulted people who have actually been on the front lines of protests these recent years. . . .The organizers, protesters, educators … all of those who have been instrumental in bringing about these recent movements for justice. Brands should never make light of social issues related to people’s suffering; they should, instead, focus on selling their products in ways that don’t exploit the pain and suffering of marginalized people.” — Writer, social worker and activist Feminista Jones.

What’s wrong with the apology?

Pepsi figured out it made a mistake. It pulled the ad and won’t be running it any more. Here’s Pepsi’s statement of apology:

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.

Like the ad, this is not the lamest apology ever, but it’s weak. The first thing to recognize in an apology is to recognize the party you’ve hurt — in this case, the Black Lives Matter movement which, remember, is about people getting shot and killed. “Clearly we missed the mark” is almost as self-centered as the ad itself. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue” is both vague and provides Pepsi with an out — because their intentions were fine.

To educate Pepsi and anyone else who needs to apologize in a situation like this, here’s a rewrite:

Our latest Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner was a mistake. In this highly polarized moment in American politics, movements like Black Lives Matter have a clear and serious commitment on a crucial political issue, and our ad trivialized that commitment and turned it into a celebration. We apologize to those committed to racial justice and to Kendall Jenner, who did not deserve to be plunged into this controversy. We’ve pulled the ad and won’t be running it any more.

Pepsi’s CEO Indra K. Nooyi is a woman of color who ought to use this moment to boost diversity efforts within Pepsi. As Eric Thomas pointed out, a few more sensitive people in positions of power might have stopped Pepsi from making this mistake.

David Armano is directly on point with his post about when a brand should take a political stand. Pepsi has no position on the issues that drive street protests. The minute it entered that fray, it was doomed. A sincere apology like the one I wrote would probably anger the people who oppose the protests. Brands who wander into the midst of a battlefield like this have no mistake — they’re going to get shot down people on one side or the other (or both).

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  1. Concur with almost all. This was a huge topic of discussion in my PR classes at UNC yesterday. I do question whether an apology to Kendall Jenner was necessary. After all, I’m sure she was paid handsomely for appearing in the spot. Perhaps it is she who should also offer an apology to her fans and particularly to those in the Black Lives Matter, Women’s March and other serious protest movements who took offense. BTW…Where were Pepsi’s corporate PR folks when they were needed most to nix this ad before it ever saw the light of day?

  2. I think we are over-thinking it way too much.
    It is an ad for flavoured coloured fizzy stuff that rots your teeth, but which we have all lived with and enjoyed all our lives.
    Treat the ad as the self indulgent fluff that it is, and all will be well.

  3. Good post. I agree with Rick, and disagree with Allen. Multinational corporations have the money and power to shape public opinion. If they had ended the ad by saying “10% of every Pepsi sold will be donated toward XX cause, I might be able to forgive them the rest — even if they said that in their apology. If you have no skin in the game, you’re just co-opting legitimate causes.

    1. Joanne,
      You are assuming in your response that money expended on advertising can shape attitudes. Decades of research consistently indicates that money can be used to shape behaviour, not attitudes. However, once behaviour changes, attitudes generally follow to accommodate the altered behaviour, so I guess you may be half right.