The Pepsi Commercial That Fell Flat

By Madeleine Hagy

Introduction

On April 4th Pepsi released an advertisement in which Kendall Jenner, a reality television star and celebrity model, handed a can of Pepsi as a peace offering to the police during a protest. The advertisement, soundtracked by Bob Marley’s grandson Skip Marley, shows Jenner walking out of a photo shoot in double denim to join a protest where activists of all ethnicities carried signs with messages like “join the conversation” and “love.” Immediately after the commercial aired it began to be criticized for using the resistance movement for its own branding by framing a privileged, white 21-year-old multimillionaire supermodel with a can of soda as a peacemaker.

Figure 1 — Example of top image results for “Pespi Kendall Jenner” Google search

Standing up for social movements such as LGBT rights or feminism is a way for brands to project themselves in a positive light, which increases consumer loyalty, and ultimately makes the brand more money (Carah, 2015). This is an easy way for brands and their consumers to politicise themselves. It suggests that even if you don’t support movements like Black Lives Matter, if you buy Pepsi you are indirectly supporting the cause. Therefore, promoting Pepsi is a means to support activism through consumerism. Jenner’s advertisement, however, did not get it’s message across in the way that some might have hoped, as it was criticized for undermining Black Lives Matters and other related social movements.

Background

At the Cannes Lions Festival last year, PepsiCo’s president, Brad Jakeman, talked about his decision to form Creators League Studio, an in-house content creation arm. He said, “Instead of five pieces of content a year, a brand like Pepsi needs about 5,000 pieces of content a year. Instead of taking six months to develop an ad, we have six hours or six days. And instead of it costing $2m, it needs to cost $20,000” (Hobbs, 2017). Pepsi was tired of the structure that working with ad agencies created and decided not to enlist an agency and work in-house instead. After the backlash from the commercial however, Jakeman most likely regrets these comments and could have benefited from taking more time to work on getting the commercial right and possibly using an advertisement agency to avoid bias.

In a poll of 754 marketing professionals conducted by Marketing Week, it was revealed that 42% of marketers believe the brands they work for are “failing to reflect contemporary society in their marketing and advertising” (Bacon, 2016). According to the IPA, the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, only 13.1% of staff currently come from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background (Hobbs, 2017). These statistics give evidence to the fact that the marketing industry rarely seeks diverse voices when creating content. According to a report from Google, “75% of black millennials would like to see brands better represent diversity in ads and are more likely to consider a brand that positively reflects black culture” (Kirkpatrick, 2017). While it is evident that brands and agencies need to hire more diverse marketers, having an in-house agency likely caused Pepsi’s team members to become blinded by the brand. They were most likely too invested and bias to spot tone or how the outside world might perceive them.

Baton Rouge Protest

In the last two years the news has been flooded with violence between activists and police in the wake of several killings of unarmed people of color and the use of excessive force at protests. In July of 2016 Ieshia Evans was among many arrested while protesting police brutality in Baton Rouge, Louisiana (Berlinger, 2016). This protest was in response to the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, by police officers outside a Baton Rouge convenience store (Valencia, 2016). The altercation and graphic scene was caught on video and shared throughout social media, sparking protests and drawing national attention (Valencia, 2016). Evans, a nurse and mother, was photographed in a sundress, standing her ground against the police officers during the protest in response to the death of Sterling. Despite being told not to she stood calmly in the middle of the street as the officers rushed towards her. Evans was arrested, held overnight, and released the next day (Berlinger, 2016).

The resemblance of this photo of Ieshia Evans standing in front of the police shown in Figure 2 and the photo with Kendall and the police has caused a lot of controversy. On twitter #boycottpepsi trended in response and countless memes were created mocking this attempt at taking a stand. Pepsi cans and bottles have been photoshopped into powerful moments of the civil rights movement and pictures that captured police brutality. This commercial is a clear take on Evans stand but in this instance the officer does not pepper spray or shoot Jenner. Instead he accepts the peace offering from her and offers a smile. The moment is captured by a woman photographer wearing a hijab, who appears in awe of Jenner’s bravery. At the end of the advertisement Pepsi says “Live Bolder,” which is an ironic statement since Pepsi didn’t actually do anything that bold (Taylor, 2017). Taking a stand in a political campaign can cause negative press, but in this case Pepsi stood for nothing. Their signs were vague and they received backlash without actually making a bold statement.

Figure 2- a comparison of the Kendall Jenner and Ieshia Evans photo with the police

The Pepsi Generation

In 1964, Pepsi used the slogan “the Pepsi Generation,” as an attempt to target young people and form an allegiance to Pepsi, rather than their competitor, Coca-cola (Donovan, 2014). They tried to win over the younger generation by highlighting the fact that Pepsi was cheaper than Coke. In one of their advertisements they asked “Who is the Pepsi Generation? Just about everyone with the young view of things. Livelier, active people with a liking for Pepsi-Cola!” (Donovan, 2014). In response to this Coca-Cola made one of its most famous advertisements yet, their “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad from 1971 (Donovan, 2014). Roger Greenaway, the songwriter for this advertisement said “I think it was the flower-power era, and most of America was tiring of the Vietnam war. The lyrics, although not overtly anti-war, delivered a message of peace and camaraderie” (Andrews, 2016). Unlike the “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke” campaign the Pepsi commercial did not receive the same praise. Coca-Cola has yet to make a comment on the failed commercial possibly because they don’t need to. The commercial was pulled and Pepsi has been receiving backlash ever since. Coca-Cola didn’t need to compete with them here, they just needed to keep up what they were doing and let their brand speak for itself.

Millennials

Reaching millennials has become increasingly important for the soda industry. According to Beverage-Digest, a trade publication, the per capita consumption of soda fell to a 30-year low in 2015 in the United States; PepsiCo has suffered the steepest decline with a 3.1% volume drop (Kell, 2016). Consumers and especially millennials have started to seek beverage alternatives that are deemed healthier such as juices and flavored water. Millennials are one of the most influential audiences to market to and often the hardest. They know what they want and can tell when they are being marketed authentically. One of the most useful ways an advertiser can market Millennials is by allowing them to participate in content creation (Solomon, 2015). Some of the strongest online content has been created with the help of their audience to shape the direction of the campaign. By giving them opportunity to co-create, brands are encouraging brand loyalty.

In the past, consumers didn’t play a big part in the product development and marketing process. Other than focus groups and interviews, channels like Facebook, Twitter, and website reviews did not exist (Solomon, 2015). In today’s digital age consumers of all ages, and especially millennials, are participating in companies marketing and they want companies to seek their opinion. They are no longer willing to be passive consumers (Solomon, 2015). This generation wants to participate and be included as partners in the brands they use and love and they search for products that feel genuine and are relatable. In this case using Jenner to make a statement for taking a stand did not feel relatable or genuine. Having a privileged, white supermodel stand at the line of a protest and create peace with a simple Pepsi can is not believable and millennials can see that this was a failed attempt at using social movements for their own agenda.

Celebrity endorsements

While the use of Kendall Jenner didn’t cause Pepsi’s advertisement to fail, it did play a part in the way the commercial was perceived by the public. Pepsi used one of the most famous supermodels in the world to convey a message of unity, in a scenario that is anything but glamorous. Featuring everyday people instead of celebrities in advertisements like this can go a long way. When conveying a message that is appealing to an audience’s persona, using a popular celebrity might make it hard to get that message across.

By using Kendall Jenner as their spokesperson, Pepsi made it difficult to connect with its target audience. For this case, the message of the video was more important than who said it; having Jenner be the spotlight of the commercial didn’t help. On the other hand, commercials like Nike’s #Equality campaign did a good job of using celebrities to help deliver their message, without taking away from the main focus of the advertisement (O’Brien, 2017). Nike’s commercial features athletes such as Lebron James, Serena Williams, Dalilah Muhammad, and Kevin Durant. In the commercials the athletes speak to how the values that sports represent can be used in a broader context. One commercial features a poem narrated by Michael B. Jordan and ends by saying “If we can be equals here, we can be equals everywhere” (O’Brien, 2017). This commercial does a great job of using influential people to get the message across, while taking a stand and making an impression and not taking away from the message itself.

Evidence

After it’s initial release, the Pepsi commercial caused the internet to respond in a less than positive way. People have started trending #boycottpepsi, and even Martin Luther King’s daughter joined the conversation by saying “if only Daddy would have know about the power of #Pepsi” (shown below).

This is a screenshot from @BerniceKing’s twitter

By inserting the text from 363 top news headlines into a word cloud, it became apparent that terms like ToneDeaf, controversial, backlash and mocked are commonly used to describe the Pepsi Jenner protest commercial. As seen in the word cloud in Figure 3, negative terms were used frequently; hardly any terms represent a positive reaction.

Figure 3- Word Cloud of top Pepsi headlines

In an analysis of the headlines from 25 articles discussing the Heineken commercial “Worlds Apart” that was released a few weeks after the Pepsi commercial, the most common words were much more positive (See figure 4). While the Heineken commercial had similar intentions as the Pepsi commercial, the company was able to get its message across in a way that worked. After the advertisement was released, it was coined the “antidote to the Pepsi ad” (Berkowitz, 2017).

Figure 4- Word Cloud of top Heineken headlines

In a sentiment analysis of the credible media sources reporting on the Pepsi commercial, it was shown that only one of the 363 Pepsi articles were positive. The rest of the news coverage consisted of 287 neutral and 74 negative articles.

Figure 5- sentiment analysis of Pepsi advertisement

In a similar analysis of the Heineken commercial there were no negative articles, two positive and 23 neutral.

Figure 6- sentiment analysis of Heineken advertisement

When compared to the Heineken commercial the coverage on the Pepsi commercial was mostly national. In total 74% of the articles analyzed were national, while only 25% of Heineken’s were national. For the most part Heineken’s coverage was trade and local.

Figure- 7 & Figure- 8

Discussion:

In such a digital age, marketers need to consider the ways to provide a new perspective on social issues such as protest movements in a way that allows them to join the conversation and bring their brand popularity, while also staying sensitive to the underlying context. Social media allows for every consumer to have a voice, and while this can be beneficial, it can also cause backlash in situations like Pepsi’s protest ad. Overall, the commercial for Pepsi had mostly national coverage; however Pepsi received mostly negative press for this advertisement, while Heineken remained more local and trade as well as more positive.

Tone Deaf has been one of the most popular terms used to describe the Pepsi commercial. Saturday Night Live even joined in on the controversial commercial with a sketch that questioned how anyone would think this commercial was a good idea. During the clip, the writer calls his sister who informs him that the idea is “tone-deaf” (Kreps, 2017). Another person on the phone tells the director he is using people of all ethnicities and cultures to “sell soda” (Kreps, 2017). This use of the term “tone-deaf” has been used in countless other tweets, articles and memes. Words like flat, mocked, Kendall and pulled were also used to describe the backlash the commercial had. Many articles criticized Pepsi’s decision to go with Jenner as their celebrity endorsement and discussed how this played a part in the way the commercial was perceived.

While most articles analyzed were neutral, only one article being positive speaks to the lack of support the commercial received. The terms surrounding the article and the articles themselves prove that people did not respond to this commercial in the way Pepsi intended. While most people seem to understand what Pepsi was trying to do, many were offended by it or questioned how it was used to get a branded message across.

As a result from the backlash from social media, Pepsi executives responded by 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 pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position” (Victor, 2017).

While their intentions may have been pure it seems their message did not come across as hoped. A couple weeks after the failed commercial, Heineken came out with an advertisement that made the Pepsi commercial look even worse. In the “Worlds Apart” commercial people with opposing points of view come together and end up sharing a beer (Berkowitz, 2017). The participants were selected for their political opinions, but not told what the experiment would entail. The three teams consisted of a transgender woman and a man who thinks transgender is wrong, a feminist and an anti-feminist and a climate change believer and denier (Berkowitz, 2017). They were challenged to assemble flat pack furniture and then a bar as they discussed each other’s personalities, but not their specific beliefs. After they were finished working together they were shown a recording of the other person discussing their beliefs. After they discovered each other’s views they were given the option to stay and talk further or leave. All the participants decided to stay and talk even though it meant they might be uncomfortable or that their beliefs would be challenged (Berkowitz, 2017).

Heineken’s commercial was part of their “Open Your World” campaign. They also partnered with The Human Library, a non profit interested in using conversation to challenge stereotypes (Berkowitz, 2017). Heineken encouraged an actual dialogue in this commercial in a mature and responsible way while exploring the issues of feminism, transgender rights, and environmental issues. They also used real, everyday people to get their message across instead of a celebrity like Jenner who might be harder to relate to. People have coined the commercial to be “the antidote” to the Pepsi ad (Berkowitz, 2017). As shown in the graph and word cloud analysis from figure 4 and 6, this commercial had a much better response. There were no negative articles written from the analysis and terms like AntiPepsi, antidote, and beautiful were used to describe the commercial.

Conclusion

The Pepsi commercial clearly missed the mark on their attempt to promote unity and joining in on the conversation. While the company had good intentions, the overall response to the Jenner protest advertisement shows that all press isn’t always beneficial and that when brands attempt to make political and social statements, it’s important to see it from all sides. By having an in-house advertising team, Pepsi was most likely too involved and biased to see how the commercial might be controversial. While hiring an advertising agency is not necessary, in the case of Pepsi, it would likely have been beneficial for them to have an outside stakeholder.

In this time period if brands seek to market to millennials, they should remember that they are going into an open forum. The conversation is no longer one sided; people everywhere are given the opportunity to voice their opinion and stand up for what they believe. In order to relate to millennials and appeal to them, advertisements have to be culturally sensitive and self-aware. Sometimes having a celebrity endorsement isn’t always the way to go. Some of the best advertisements are effective because they are relatable and feature everyday people. Although Pepsi acknowledged their failed attempt at unity the damage was already done and the articles and key terms surrounding the commercial speak to the negative effect this advertisement had. In the future it might be beneficial for Pepsi to spend more time working on their advertisements and check with outside sources to avoid bias.


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