The Pepsi ad shows what brands are getting wrong about activism

The release of Pepsi’s new ‘Live For Now’ commercial was met with widespread disapproval on Tuesday. The ad is centered around what appears to be a peace protest that concludes with Kardashian star and model, Kendall Jenner approaching a line of riot police and handing an officer a can of Pepsi, to which the crowd react jubilantly.

The ad quickly became viral for all the wrong reasons. It was panned on social media for co-opting and commercialising protest movements, undermining the realities and dangers of protests, particularly for people of colour, and using a privileged white supermodel as the face of resistance.

Pepsi however, stuck to their guns and released a statement saying “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.”

Not only is this just a really bad and sadly see-through advert — it’s indicative of what brands are thinking in their boardrooms and marketing teams.

By commodifying dissent and ‘the resistance’ through an ambiguous protest, Pepsi seek to get behind the movement without actually having to get behind anything. The vague peace symbol and ‘join the conversation’ signs show lack of commitment to any cause. What conversation?

Creating a global advert understandably should incorporate people of different cultures, however in no way should it be simply using people of colour as props. Using Kendall Jenner, a celebrity who has no history of being outspoken on anything, as the peacemaker solving social justice issues further illegitimises whatever supposed message of activism there is here. Again, the vague slogan ‘Live Bolder, Live Louder’ printed across an image of Jenner leading her multicultural allies, lacks any substance.

It’s difficult to imagine how many people must have signed off the ad created by Creators League Studio, PepsiCo’s in-house creative team. Yet what is far easier to imagine is how execs would have signed this off thinking that it ticks all the progressive, liberal boxes.

In the Trump era a lot of brands are seeking to put their fingers on the socio-political pulse. Several of the coveted 2017 Super Bowl commercial spots were occupied by brands hinting at the political climate, including Airbnb’s ‘Acceptance starts with all of us’ campaign and Pepsi’s rival Coca-Cola’s advertisement focused on American diversity. Over the past few years, brands have also stood out in support of LGBT issues, Black Lives Matter and women’s rights, particularly online.

It’s not surprising that brands would attempt to portray demonstrations considering the worldwide success of the 2017 Women’s March and general feelings of dissent across the globe. Yet real protests are about rights, and when you take away the seriousness and the substance behind them you end up with this spiritless Pepsi commercial. Hopefully what brands can learn here is that when taking global issues into account, a lack of nuance will do more harm than good.

Update: Pepsi have since pulled the commercial. The company issued a second statement saying “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”.