Black Soda Matters: The Awful, Awkward Pepsi Ad Fiasco

“So there are all these movements, right. And Pepsi needs to capture the energy of the movement, and we’ll be the drink of the revolution.”

“That’s a great strategy, marketing guy. Let’s make Kendall Jenner the face of it because she is so millennial.”

Pepsi apologized and pulled their recent ad that featured Kendall Jenner transforming from a blonde to a brunette street-legal member of a quote-unquote protest. This protest features a Benetton ad worth of good-looking diversity, ice buckets full of Pepsi, and quote-unquote protest signs that include revolutionary statements like “Join the Conversation” and an upside-down peace sign.

The climax/nadir of the ad is when a jeans-clad Kendall offers a police officer a Pepsi. The police officer grins like, “Kendall Jenner just gave me a soda,” and then all the quote-unquote protesters awkwardly dance and cheer. Then Pepsi exhorts us to live bolder, live louder, the grammar flaws being the least offensive.

Oh my. I’ve watched this excruciating piece of ad-trash repeatedly, trying to unpack it. Many people have taken this as an exploitation of the Black Lives Matter protests, especially the iconic photo by Jonathan Bachman, in which an ethereal young woman, vulnerable and brave, with her hands open in a gesture of peace, stands in front of a line of riot police.

photo credit: Reuters/Jonathan Bachman

There are few black people in the 1-minute version of the ad (there is a longer, 2.5 minute version with a bit more narrative). One woman’s face seems to channel the general horror with which the ad has been received.

The rest of the cast, at least in the 1-minute version, is racially ambiguous, maybe Southeast Asian, maybe (god-forbid) Arabic, but just brown enough and “ethnic” enough not to pass for white. Comfortably diverse, let’s call it. Diversity without signifier to a specific race, without all the racial baggage attached to, say, an angry black person at a protest.

It not only completely strips the color from the face of protest, it strips meaning from the purpose of protest. It uses protest as a trendy background. It stars one of the most manufactured personas of this era to represent authentic movements retaliating against lack of representation, among other things.

This is not the time for brands to play lightly with what is truly meaningful. This country is on a razor’s edge about race & politics, and a brand that doesn’t understand or live the zeitgeist will get hurt.