In advertising, the only currency is attention
For a few days in the middle of Spring 2017, Pepsi pushed the limits of “there is no such thing as bad publicity.” In a commercial just shy of three minutes long, the caffeine consortium appropriated the images of millennial protests to peddle its sugar water. Days later, Pepsi pulled the ad and apologized for its tone-deaf deployment of protest imagery.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the soda company stated. “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 roll-out. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
In the days before Pepsi pulled the ad, millions saw it. The video ran on YouTube, news programs and all over the internet. Outraged bloggers and journalists dissected the video frame by frame, gifing the worst bits of it to share with their friends and followers.
The outrage cycle worked as intended. Pepsi won.
Pepsi pulled the ad from its YouTube channel, but you can still watch copies of it on dozens of others. If it wanted to, the soda company could hit those channels with DMCA takedowns, claim a copyright on the material and bury the ad forever. To be clear, there’s no way to scrub the ad from the public record — this is the internet after all — but Pepsi could make it real hard to see it. You’ll notice the company hasn’t done so.
In case you missed it, the ad features Kendall Jenner — daughter of Kris and Caitlyn Jenner and sister to Kim Kardashian. The commercial opens on a Pepsi can then shows a multi-ethnic milquetoast protest moving its way through the streets of Anycity, USA.
As the protest swells, it catches the attention of Jenner as she preens for a photoshoot. Cut to a young woman wearing a hijab. She’s surrounded by photos but frustrated with all of them. She hears the protests and takes to the streets to capture it with her camera. The protests eventually draw in Jenner who pulls off her luxurious clothing, abandons the photo-shoot and takes to the streets to march with the others.
She pulls a Pepsi from a bucket, hands it to a riot cop who smiles and the young photographer in the hijab catches it all.
It’s obvious appropriation of protest imagery from the last few years and the internet hordes quickly descended to rend the ad to pieces. My personal favorite depicts a pair of glasses sliding over the lens They Live style and warping the image to show horrible aliens drinking a can that reads CONSUME instead of Pepsi.
It’s been a lot of fun. But here’s the thing … this is all in Pepsi’s interest. All this attention is still attention, people won’t stop drinking the drink and nothing is going to change.
The most viral form of online campaign is outrage. Anger makes people share an article or video far more than joy, despair or any other emotion. I don’t know if Pepsi set out to craft the perfect anger inducing viral video or just bumblefucked into it, but the results are the same either way.
Millions shared the video in their rage, boosted the signal of the soda jerk’s latest ad campaign and plant the logo in the minds of millions. And Pepsi didn’t have to pay a dime for it.
Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying explained how this cycle works and why it’s actually good for brands to piss off consumers. Holiday worked as a media strategist for American Apparel and pioneered the art of pissing off the public to gain attention for a brand.
According to Holiday, building brand awareness works regardless of the type of attention received. People like stories, period, and they’ll chase something of interest just to see what the fuss is about. If the story is outrageous, all the better. Outrage pushes the story across the interest and then the company gets to apologize, which forces the message out again through a second news cycle.
While working at American Apparel, Holiday constantly peddled advertisements that bordered on pornographic. Blogs such as Jezebel and Gawker would pick up the ads, point out how horrible they were and then A.A. would retract them and apologize. Every blog post was free advertising for the clothing company.
“Another time I had some promotional images for a Halloween campaign I … couldn’t use, because of copyright concerns,” Holiday wrote in Trust Me I’m Lying. “I still wanted them seen, so I had one of my employees e-mail them to Jezebel and Gawker and write, ‘I shouldn’t be doing this but I found some secret images on the American Apparel server and here they were.’ The post based on this lie did ninety thousand views.”
In this way Holiday secured a free ad buy for American Apparel just before Halloween. When you view the big, tone-deaf advertisement screw ups of the internet age with a cynical eye, a lot of seemingly stupid behavior begins to make sense. Take, for example, that time Urban Outfitters sold a limited edition Kent State sweatshirt covered in fake blood.
Urban Outfitters obviously meant to evoke the tragedy of the 1970 Kent State shooting to push a few $129 sweatshirts. People got pissed, shared the story across social media and pulled the sweatshirts with an apology days later. This was one of those sweet times where the apology was just a big a story as the initial offering. Even the fucking Washington Post ran the retraction.
Pepsi enjoyed unprecedented coverage in the wake of its awful ad. The internet took it apart, put it back together and repackaged it into hilarious memes. Saturday Night Live ran a skit based on the ad complete with hundreds of Pepsi logos. I wonder if PesiCo paid for the time or just got three minutes of advertising on America’s favorite comedy program for free.
People who love Pepsi won’t stop drinking it because of this ad. People who hate Pepsi will continue to hate it. There’s no mass movement to boycott the company and all the hundreds of things it produces. All that happened was Pepsi got its logo in front of millions of people and will do for another week or so.
The company’s numbers won’t slump and might — in fact — enjoy a slight bump as people addled by brand overload reach for a Pepsi because their lizard brain reminds them they’ve seen that logo somewhere before recently.
Pepsi won. We all lost. Stay defiant.
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