Social Movements in Advertising: Pepsi “We the People” ft. Kendall Jenner (2017)

Exactly one week ago, Pepsi made it through the headlines of various media globally—but not in a good way. Their newly launched Youtube ad featuring Kendall Jenner received a massive number of critiques and was forced to be taken down on the same day. The ad has been dubbed as ‘tone-deaf‘ and ‘the worst advertisment ever‘ by PR and advertising experts. Instead of gaining potive sales results from targeted group, the company effort backfired. In the end, Pepsi was labeled as an insensitive brand—belittling the social movements trend currently happening throughout the country.

Have you seen the commercial? If not, please do.

See anything noticeably arguable in the ad?

Appearantly, many Americans do. Pepsi and Kendall became the trending topics of Twitter in a few hours after. The general public also express their displeasure towards the ad in the most uncontroversial way—by posting sarcastic memes depicting Kendal Jenner’s effect in the ad. You can check some of the most interesting comments on Twitter compiled by Campaignlive.com here.

Kendall’s Peace Effect in WWII (taken from me.me)

You should by now ask the million-dollar question: why are people mad?

The advertisment highlights on the social movement trend happening in the US. The reason was simple—social activists grew significantly in number during the last few years. The group was strategic enough to be labeled as a growing potential market for many industries, including FMCG. And Pepsi, as a market challenger was constantly trying to tap into new markets to up their game while taking Coca-Cola down a notch.

Some of the most prominent organizations that facilitate them can be seen here.

Targeting on a segmented market is one thing, but the main problem lies in their tactics to achieve it. As any other brand would, the company put up an ad with their target market as the main actors. Pepsi’s portrayal, however, was labeled as a failure in reading the issue.

It got a huge crowd, dancing, cops, and Kendall Jenner, yet still missing the whole point? That should be read with sarcasm.

Let’s start from analyzing the actors in Pepsi’s ad.

First, we got the group of protesters coming from different minority backgrounds—Asians, Moslems, LGBTs, Blacks, and many others. What have yet to be analyzed is how each of them were depicted in the video. We have a geniusly smart, excessively hard-working Asian playing the cello, a female Moslem with rebelious air wearing nose piercing who is seemingly portrayed as a feminist, LGBT couples acting like hippies, and Black people dancing hip-hop on the streets. Those certainly do not reflect how Pepsi got some serious stereotyping going on—except the fact that it totally does. The character design followed my imaginary Donald Trump’s view upon the world. How very unexpected!

There was also the fact that these people look like they were having fun rather than fighting for a cause. Dancing on the streets with free beverages and joined by an artist? Who wouldn’t want that?

Second, the star of it all, USA very own Kendall Jenner. Never mind the fact that the posh girl had no track record of social activism whatsoever, she was depicted leaving her photoshoot early to join the march. It is amazing how Pepsi could choose to target social activists while bringing out one of the most controversial celebrity known for her luxurious and risky lifestyle. I don’t even think Kendall ever tried to sign a petition on her own will, furthermore joining a march.

Really, Pepsi? Kendall Jenner? I know you can do better than that!

Third, the all-white cops. If it wasn’t so obvious, Pepsi tried to further emphasize on minority vs majority groups in the US. White guys in the ad represent the US Police Force—that is, if they were all good-looking, well-mannered, and friendly to every protester. The narrative couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Read the scene-by-scene breakdown by Christopher Hooton here.

On my trip to USA last summer, I noticed how complex the multiracial conflict was. My first destination was at the heart of Baltimore, the city known to hosts many African-Americans and Moslems. I had discussions on how Black-White division was rooted, how it affects community significantly, and also the story of young African-American like Freddie Gray. Freddie died on his way to be transported to prison because of the rough treatment from the Caucasian officers. His story is still alive and shared in sermons within Black community to keep the fire alive.

Freddie Gray Mural in Baltimore (taken from news.yahoo.com)

Freddie was not the only victim. Before him, there were numerous cases of missing, injured, or dead African-American because of the difference in treatment. One of my friends shared how even the public facilities’ and services’ qualities are naturally differentiated between races, such as the police patrol cars that only park in White neighborhoods. In social occasions, the cases are more subtly hinted, but the discrimination is real. Apartheid did not end with Nelson Mandela.

The multiracial and minority issues are highly sensitive to be discussed in social occasions, yet Pepsi tried to bring it out in a casual manner and trying to trigger conversations. The social activists became their main focus in the ad. However, the cause was lost. Instead of bringing the outmost importance element in any social activism, the spirit to fight for a cause, Pepsi illustrated their target as free-spirited hippies who love to get on the street and shout without any reason.

Pepsi’s ad shown how protesters casually speak up because they want to have fun—dancing, singing, and opening cans of soda in the streets. The real condition, though, they speak up because they don’t want to be subjected to social injustices, even with their lives at stake in many occasions. Tear gasses and jails are some of the real things people must face in becoming an activist in USA.

Black Lives Matter Protest—Did they look like they were having fun? (taken from cnn.com)

The result was predictable, honestly—similar to how Indonesian public would act if a brand published a video ad focusing on Syiah-Sunni’s or Islam-any other religion’s conflicts. I know the brand meant well, but the manner in doing so took a different approach. Race to Americans is similar to religion to Indonesians, both cannot be discussed casually. A brand that fails to see the depth of the issue and choose to belittle it won’t be able to succeed in a highly critical society such as USA.

A big number of social activists perceive the ad as disrespectful to late big-names advocates. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., even responded the ad with full-on sarcasm.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Fought His Way Without A Can of Soda (taken from twitter.com/berniceking)

The social activists cannot be approached with generic advertisment, though choosing specific issues can also cause another debate. From my point of view, this should be approached with pure PR works because of the delicate nature of the issue. And it must be handled seriously. If Pepsi plans to target a minority groups conversing on issues of interests, what they can do is show those people that they genuinely care. The social activists does not care about superficial issues manifested within advertisments—they care about things that really matters. A series of community events supported by relevant coverage would be much cheaper and effective than hiring big-name artists to go on a non-existent march. Creativity has its boundaries.

Please, do notice that your target doesn’t have that happy-go-lucky of many Kendall Jenner’s fans’, Pepsi!

In the panel interview session held by CNBC on this topic, Pepsi was considered to be insensitive because its lack of understanding that a lot of people hold the movements dear. The brand was considered to just conveniently take on a strategic market and issue without any relevant associations. This argument is quite interesting if seen from a strategic communications’ perspective. It means that brands, though they can leverage their associations, should stick with relevant issues. Pepsi, on the other hand, tried to force their product to general social movement trend—and it shows.

The interview can be seen here.

On the other hand, I personally think that brands could always find a relevance on strategic issues if they had used corporate communications instead of marketing-based approach.

Remember how Dove was came to known for its Real Beauty campaign? The brand first introduced a Youtube ad on how women see themselves, as can be seen here.

There was no mention of the brand nor its product insert in the ad, which makes it more of a soft-sell rather than hard-sell as adopted by Pepsi. The transition was smooth and people didn’t feel like it was forced—but of course the overall goal of corporate communications was more of a brand image rather than direct selling. Pepsi could have done similar approach by taking the spirit to fight for something carried in both social movements and its brand essence. However, the brand chose an unexpected turn by translating spirits of social movements into a happy and exciting manner while backed with irrelevant and badly-chosen advertising elements—many of those include flaunting its products in every 10 seconds.

The most debated, and highly laughable, issue remains, of course, The Kendall Effect.

In the end of the ad, it was shown how Kendall broke up from the group to hand an officer a can of soda. He drank it gladly, and smiled. The crowd cheered. So… problem solved?

I wouldn’t say so with Pepsi.

The visualization of Kendall Jenner handing out a can of Pepsi to an officer regarded as a trivialization of social movements, with Black Lives Matter in particular. Kendall’s image shown uncanny resemblance to Leshia Evans, an active advocate of the movement, when she faced a number of officers in the 2016 protest. While Kendall was subjected with friendly demeanor and smiles, Leshia was greeted with closed arms and shields. Can you see the obvious differences in treatment?

Leshia Evans and the Officers (taken from dailymail.co.uk)

The ad’s controversion centered around the 21 years old Kendall Jenner, who appearantly directly went MIA in Paris right after it took off. Kendall was actually very pleased when she was offered the job, making her the second youngster to be the face of Pepsi after Cindy Crawford. After its launched, however, her image as a superficial high-class spoiled girl just got worse.

A brand is at risk to skyrocket to success or fall down to a dump when associating itself with notable figures. Interestingly, in Kendall’s case, it was the other way around. I actually do pity her.

Pepsi’s public apology didn’t make Kendall’s position any better. Some people commented that Kendall should not be on the list of people Pepsi needs to apologize to. Pepsi apologizing to Kendall is the same as a director apologizing to the actor when the outcome went bad, even when the actor had read the script and signed contracts.

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 pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.

(taken from twitter.com/pepsi)

Appearantly the company produced the ad in-house and did not hire any agency in the process. That makes the numerous mistakes more understandable, but still extremely fatal. An agency would have been able to sense the target market’s character and bring out relevant narratives—obviously none involving Kendall Jenner. In the end, the ad clearly went highly overbudget and ineffective. I guess that is the price any brand would have to pay when trying to produce ads by themselves without any capable hands in the team.

They would need some serious PR works to overcome this.

So in conclusion, moral lessons: think twice before bringing up delicate issues in advertisments, hire an agency, and never use Kendall Jenner.

Last, please do watch the video review below. The reviewer critically discussed on irrelevant advertising elements in Pepsi’s ad—and was completely hilarious in doing so!

Lintang Cahyaningsih

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