The New Pepsi Ad: The Rotten Onion of Advertising

How the people at Pepsi goofed one ugly layer at a time. (With lots of rhetorical questions!)

(Edit: Some time after the original release of the ad, PepsiCo. has pulled the ad from circulation, noting that they “missed the mark and apologize”. Pepsi does have the option to issue DMCA claims on any YouTube video re-uploaded, so do not expect current re-uploads of the ad to stay online for too long)

Above is the new Pepsi ad titled “Live For Now Moments Anthem” featuring Kendall Jenner, part of their new “moments” campaign. Now, much has been said on Twitter about how colossally horrendous this ad is, but I want to add my two cents in on this social media disaster.

In recent years, social media disasters such as this have become more and more common. Total Beauty mistaked Whoopi Goldberg for Oprah. In 2015, Bloomingdale advocated for date rape within one of their magazine advertisements. Heck, even the government has had it’s fair share of gaffs, like the time when they made this insulting ad on their Twitter account. But this Pepsi ad — which Pepsi calls an “important message to convey” — is so bad on so many different layers, it is the rotten onion of bad advertising. The amount of people involved in this who straight-up failed to do their job is astounding. Two-minute forty seconds ads with celebrity endorsements and licensed music don’t just appear out of thin air, meaning Pepsi’s people didn’t just screw the pooch, but Kendall Jenner’s people dropped the ball. And Skip Marley better hope people forget he was ever complicit in this.

But, personally, in a sadistic, ironic way, I like rotten onions. They are pretty fun to laugh at, especially after a long day of work. So when we are presented with a rotten onion as goofy as this, I think it’s best to dig in one layer at a time, to spectate each and every stupid calamity by their own merit.

The First Layer: Why would Pepsi do something like this in the first place?

I do not know exactly what happened at Pepsi which made a lot of people make multiple very bad decisions, but I imagine it went down like this:

The Advertising Unit at Pepsi — mostly a bunch of old white men with a few young, fresh out of collage interns — got in a big circle to talk about how they could emphasize their brand over the nostalgic, Americana brand of Coke. They all understand that Pepsi has been the more edgy brand for a long time, but they think that the younger generation might not quite understand this edge to Pepsi. They are under a lot of pressure from their superiors for a successful campaign, because The Coca-Cola Company is still making half as much money as PepsiCo with less IPs (especially without Lays, which makes up a sizeable portion of PepsiCo’s profit). Suddenly, one of the old geysers (I have no idea if I spelled that right) turns on the news and they are covering some sort of #BlackLivesMatter protest. All of a sudden, the young, hip and trendy interns start throwing out phrases like “woke” and “join the conversation”.

And BOOM, they have an ambitious idea that they believe is juuuuuussst risky enough to capture their coveted millenial demographic and fit their brand.

The only problem is that Pepsi isn’t really in any position as a company to take any risks at all.

A big company like PepsiCo, which made over 19.5 billion dollars in 2016’s forth quarter last year, really just needs to sit on their hind legs in order to keep their cash. That’s billion with a B. Soda products are a mainstay not only within American society, but on the entire freakin’ earth. Pepsi has completely saturated the market with their products. Pepsi and Diet Pepsi remain quite competitive with Coca-Cola and Diet Coke, while Mountain Dew blows Mellow Yellow out of the water (I refuse to cite this, you all know it’s true). They really don’t have all that much to be worried about here. Any attempt to capture further market share will probably lend diminishing returns.

The Second Layer: Why would Pepsi run this ad with their main product?

Let’s for one second pretend that Pepsi needs to take this risk. Maybe there are some problems within the company that I don’t know about. Maybe they ran the idea internally among a larger sample group and got all-around great responses (this one’s pretty unlikely, I admit).

Still — even with all the above given — it makes no sense to run this ad with the main Pepsi line.

Now, I understand that most people probably don’t follow soda-related news as much as I do (I am truly passionate), but PepsiCo actually recently re-branded Sierra Mist to Mist Twist. It turns out Sierra Mist wasn’t doing all that well in comparison in American markets against 7-Up and Sprite. And if you have an inferior product, the best option for most companies is to re-brand. I think that was pretty obvious; I personally don’t know all that many people who have a strong preference for Sierra Mist, but I know a few big names who seem to like Sprite.

So if someone has a gun to your head and forcing you to run this awful campaign, it makes so much more sense to run it with Mist Twist. Because, if by some hand of God, the campaign is successful, you have just established a brand that Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper won’t go anywhere near. But if it fails, Pepsi can just toss out Mist Twist, re-brand back to Sierra Mist, pass GO, and collect $200. This takes a bad situation and makes it a lot better for everyone involved.

The Third Layer: Why would you make the ad so tone deaf and on-the-nose?

With this one, let’s pretend the good people at Pepsi are real stubborn. They’ve established that they really need to hit a home run with the ad, and believe stepping into the political sphere is the best way to do it. They believe their best option is to go with their main brand, tried-and-true Pepsi, possibly because they themselves have forgotten Mist Twist exists.

Why would you take one of the most contentious debates in America — the one surrounding police brutality — and attempt to appropriate it to make money?

A lot of polling has been done since the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown. Here are a boatload of polls by Gallup from 2014 on the differing attitudes towards race between black and white Americans. Here is another poll indicating that more Americans are worried about violence against police than violence towards the police.

Now, personally, I don’t agree with these opinions, and the polling results look more favorable when one looks at the polling done for younger people only, but using this political wedge as foundation to hype up a brand is probably not a great idea.

But I think Pepsi actually understood this a little bit, and decided that their best option was to continue to use protesting in their advertisement, but to water the message down so much that the entire ad sort of collapses in on itself.

Remember those interns I made up before, who were theoretically in the room while they were creating this ad? Well, they must have left for a bathroom break at some point, because the whole ad reeks of old, out-of-touch white men attempting to be trendy. The signs at the protest say nothing more than “Join the conversation!”, which is one of the most pointless and redundant phrases a person could ever write on a sign at a protest. Some adorable twentysomethings (one with blue hair) are having what I am assuming to be brunch in the middle of the protest. There is an attractive Asian man with a beanie and a blue guitar case who gives Kendall Jenner (don’t worry, we will get to her more later) this internal “Come to Jesus!” moment where she finally becomes #woke and joins the protest. Everyone at the protest is smiling and wearing Pepsi blue and everyone seems to be having a big ‘ol blast, except for the one moment where the Muslim lady with a camera becomes furious, not because of Islamophobia or Trump’s travel ban or anything important, but because her protest pictures aren’t good enough to probably post on her Instagram account. This all goes without mentioning the mindbogglingly horrid ending, where Kendall Jenner gives the police officer a Pepsi and systematic racism disappears, as if this soft drink has a mystical power to revive black boys whose lives were taken too soon. Maybe it’s aspartame that can remove hundreds and hundreds of years of oppression, or maybe it’s the corn syrup that erases slavery and its consequences from the record. Whatever the secret ingredient is, it sure seemed to work, with the whole orgy of fun and all in the protest crowd.

This whole ad is so goddamn cute, it embodies the worst, most nihilistic stereotype about liberal millennials: that everything they do is for social capital, that they act in their own entitled self-interest, and that no one really cares about anything.

If I were advising Pepsi in this instance, and they really wanted to go with a political message, I definitely believe it would have been a much better decision to go with a commercial with a much more “pro-immigrant” vibe than this vague nonsense they ended up creating. Budweiser already made that ad for the Super Bowl, and it totally rocked everyone’s socks off. Polling on Trump’s wall are much more supportive of this kind of ad campaign, as 64% of Americans oppose the building of the wall when America has to pay for it, according to this February Quinnipiac poll. Here, the only demographic Pepsi risks angering are the hardcore pro-Trump supporters, who they were never targeting in the first place.

But even if Pepsi had gone with that route, a certain awareness has to be displayed when supporting some sort of liberal cause. The general narrative surrounding young liberals is far more critical of the advertising industry, not to mention capitalism as a whole. Trying to sell products with liberal politics inherits a certain amount of irony; it hard to sell a product to a group of people who don’t wanna be sold products anymore.

This is why corporations should usually just pretend politics don’t exist, as it’s often a trap to get involved. I don’t want to care about whether or not the cookies I eat support gay rights or if my chicken sandwich opposes gay rights, so don’t make me care. Consumers aren’t going to just go out to the grocery store and buy Oreo’s in some agenda to support gay rights, because Oreo as a company doesn’t have anything to do with gay rights. Consumers who disagree with a companies stance — like in the Chick-fil-A example — are, however, likely to avoid business with that company in the future. So, at best, the political campaign has no effect, and at worst, it alienates a large group of customers.

The only exception is if a company wants to seem progressive in an area of conflict directly involving their product. If Pepsi made some series about how their soda uses less water than Coca-Cola due to some new, high-tech carbonation machines or something, they might be able to find some success. These types of advertisements are much lower risk and could possibly yield even higher rewards than the more general, youthful attempt Pepsi tried here.

The Forth and Final Layer: Why would Pepsi use Kendall Jenner as their celebrity?

At this point, Pepsi has reached the point of no-return. They have done so much cocaine, they will believe anything if it’ll allow them to DO something. The white power in their bloodstreams has created a grand delusion where they can single-handedly eliminate tension between the minority and police communities, which doesn’t even include their incredible efforts to “start a conversation”. “Wow, we are doing a good thing,” one drugged-up employee says to another, “but what celebrity do we get to play the main role in this incredibly powerful and moving advertisement?” A lot of names came up, but after much deliberation, they decide on social media superstar Kendall Jenner.

Once again, I’ll make a confession: I do not know that much about Kendall Jenner. I gather that people on the Internet seem to believe she is attractive and that she is somehow related to the Kardashians. I am also aware that these Jenner-Kardashian folk are really good at selling stuff, so much so that they receive around $300k per endorsement, according to this Forbes estimate. The amount of research I will do on the Kardashian’s for the sake of this article will be minimal, because I refuse to allow my brain to rot in their sphere of influence for too long.

But there are a lot of actors in Hollywood who have a lot higher credibility when it comes to political issues. Kendall Jenner hasn’t really stepped into the realm of politics before. In fact, the Kardashian clan as a whole tries to stay pretty apolitical.

Releasing a good political ad relies on having an endorsement the audience can believe, and this is a really bad ad, so it desperately needs an endorsement from some person with a record in this area. It’s entirely possible that Kendall Jenner cares more about the issues than the general millennial, but the evidence to support that is completely nonexistent.

Jenner’s reality show life also indicates a certain level of complicity with the capitalist scheme; the same capitalist scheme which many real protesters actually care about. Simply put: Jenner bought into a dream life that most American can’t have, where she is surrounded by ridiculous opulence twenty-four seven, all because she knows some people who made a sex tape (sorry, no link) and got OJ hand to squeeze out of a shrunken glove. Pepsi decided to pick one of the least genuine individuals on the face of the earth to represent some of the most genuine protests in recent history, where people are appealing for the right to exist in a society which seeks to destroy them at every turn.

There won’t be any real long term consequences for Pepsi for this. Sure, maybe, this quarter’s stock prices might fall or whatever, but I highly doubt this spells the end for a centuries old company. Maybe some suit & tie will show up on the TODAY show, pleading to Matt Lauer that the company will do better in the future. Or maybe the company will go to even more drastic measures and go on an apology tour. None of it really matters, even to them, because cola is so ubiquitous and by the time this long article gets posted, everyone will have forgotten this occurred anyways. Another scandal will occur, quite possibly something more serious and worrying, and our collective focus will turn again to more important things.

But Pepsi has got to be at least a little annoyed that this thing went so south on them. They probably learned their lesson, at least at the vaguest level possible, where they seem to understand all issues in society. Maybe they will “do better” next time, likely because doing worse would take a magical level of effort that the out-of-touch alien team at Pepsi does not currently posses the capability to create. Maybe those aliens got fired and are currently being replaced by newer, fresher faced aliens, who have likely taken one too many advertising classes for their own good in college.

Whatever. I need a Coke.

Eric DeBord is a freshman at the University of Minnesota who is currently planning on majoring in Professional Journalism within the College of Liberal Arts. You can contact Eric at Feel free to also shoot him a tweet here.