The Elephant In The Room: Police, Pepsi, And United Airlines

As two brands are vilified for breaking cultural norms, who’s the real culprit?

In a weeklong period, two brands–Pepsi and United Airlines–have drawn immense criticism from consumers, celebrities, marketers, and more. Google Trends shows swells of as much as 500% in search traffic for these two brands, but largely absent from media coverage, search terms, and critiques are discussion of the shared problem depicted in each scenario: law enforcement. Brands need not be defended, but are they ultimately the right target in this case?

Pepsi couldn’t understand protest like they could policing.

We know that Pepsi got it really, really wrong–so much so that it hardly warrants discussion here. Basically, at a time when there is a much more sophisticated, subtle, and authoritative critical dialogue around allies and appropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement, Pepsi inadvertently substituted “Pepsi” for “All” into the nomenclature, attempting to stoke the embattled universalist ideals of neoliberalism. To say nothing of other related forms of demonstration in the public sphere, it was so stupid that it’s probably best if we just move on.

But what Pepsi got less wrong matters as well. The much simpler force to depict in the “equation” of protest is that of state power. The police–depicted as the mostly white, male perimeter surrounding the grounds of whatever causeless march-turned-jam session portrayed in the ad–is easy to reference. We already know what they symbolize, we know their role. And so it’s perfectly suitable to the storyline of the advertisement for police to appear only when needed, at the climax. In our current political climate, the advertisement relies on the assumption that we already knew the police were there, and asserts that the threat of confrontation is their primary purpose.

It’s a sad stereotype to traffic in, but a reminder of the work to be done in creating a new policing model that sheds beliefs and practices associated with traditions as historically vast as antebellum Night Watches, The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, and beyond. If we conjure an immensely charitable reading of Kendal Jenner handing over the can of Pepsi to a police officer, then maybe we are approaching the intent behind a “flawed execution” that some marketers have pointed to .

United Airlines didn’t drag David Dao off its flight. The police did.

Framing the gesture as “re-accomodating” a passenger was such an inebriated form of public relations, it was amazing that it hadn’t come from one of President Trump’s tweets in the middle of the night. But ultimately, United Airlines enlisted airport police (security officers of the Chicago Dept. of Aviation, more specifically) to physically, brutally, and unnecessarily remove David Dao from its flight.

While the overbooking- and voucher-related policies in the airline industry are being toted as the central absurdity of the situation, they’re not the real injustice at play in the event itself, the video capturing it, or the virality of conversation across media platforms. The mathematic premise of this practice among airlines may be foreign to some, but it is hardly absurd in the larger realm of business. Moreover, the $11,000 received by a would-be Delta passenger indicates that the system can work to everyone’s favor. Anyone who’s gotten a free voucher for taking that flight 90 minutes after the one they booked will likely agree.

With so much vitriol directed at United, it’s surprising how little attention has been given to the security officers who removed Dao from the plane, or the policies and procedures that enable them to act on behalf of United in any manner. As a representative from the CDA noted, “the incident on United flight 3411 was not in accordance with our standard operating procedure and the actions of the aviation security officer are obviously not condoned by the Department.” One officer involved in Dao’s removal has since been placed on leave.

Therefore, the question for the public becomes primarily one of the judgement exercised by security agents from the CDA. Assuming security officers employed by the city of Chicago are public servants, they likely have some ability to determine their response to a request from private operators like United. At a minimum, they surely have the capacity to not escalate a situation in the way we’ve seen. Like the unfortunate stereotype(s) used by Pepsi, this too is a lamentable trope used to depict our interactions with state power.

Not conspiracy, resignation.

In Pepsi’s advertisement, we see an inability of the content producers to truly understand the world outside their own; in the United scenario, we see symptoms of the inverse among consumers. Brands obviously play a central role in both scenarios, but neither as big as that of the police. As both situations are already rife with their own political connotations–particularly around the treatment of minorities–it seems odd that a continued discussion about policing has not come to the fore. But perhaps the intended effect is just that: to normalize the emerging security culture in America.