The Pepsi-fication Of Resistance Has A Long And Ugly History

Inside America’s longstanding commodification and sanitization of resistance.

When people think of resistance in the American context, the first thing they tend to think about is the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. And when they think of this movement, they typically envision Black folx in dapper suits and ties, singing catchy Negro spirituals as they peacefully link arms on their march toward equality and desegregation.

Never mind that the actual movement involved church bombings (as at Birmingham Church), Bloody Sunday, and other violence. These are unsavory incidents that Americans would rather not remember, so they dismiss them as being “so long ago” (though barely 50 years ago have passed, meaning people in the movement are still living) or pretend they never happened while promoting a vision of amity and pacifism.

There is little Americans love more than reducing a very complex movement to the comforting description of “nonviolent.”

For years, cultural depictions of the Civil Rights fight have been crafted by those who, as the American Prospect put it:

“seek to domesticate the movement, homogenize it, make it universally palatable. They delete from the movement’s history its troublesome radical outcroppings, subordinate its communal character to tales of individual heroism, and make the narrative into a story of American triumphalism.”

Fast forward several decades, and this description may bring to mind a different image: Kendall Jenner wielding a Pepsi. In the aftermath of that ridiculous ad, which has since been pulled, many examined its “White Feminism” undertones — because, hello, it’s like Pepsi was begging for it.

What in tarnation…

But there’s another, also-important issue that’s been explored less often: America’s longstanding commodification and sanitization of resistance.

In other words, we mustn’t forget that this ad was was not an anomaly. The Pepsi-fication of protests has been happening for as long as there’s been resistance to injustice.

A History Of Sanitization

The sanitization of the Civil Rights Movement is perhaps best typified in our cultural treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr., whom we prefer to remember through a highly anglicized lens — one that casts him not as a controversial figure, but as a sort of American Black Jesus (mind you, both MLK and Jesus have been sanitized in this way. All “love,” no bite).

It’s no accident that MLK’s quotes denouncing the United States for its involvement in the Vietnam War, recognizing the value of riots, and chastising wealthy nations (like the United States) for not being more concerned for their poor have been overlooked in favor of his quotes about “love driving out hate” or “love transforming an enemy to a friend” or “sticking with love” since hate is “too great a burden to bear.” Turning him into this symbol for eternal peace is easier for Americans (namely White Americans) to digest; that progress has happened as a result of often-brutal fighting and sacrifice is far less palatable to the masses than the vision of a man simply espousing peace and achieving it.

Today, it’s this dynamic that compels protesters to placidly chant “love conquers all” or “love trumps hate,” as Black Lives Matter protesters address what’s really happening with battle cries like “No justice, no peace, no racist police.” Pepsi’s ridiculous depictions of “love,” “peace,” and “join the conversation” protest signs are, yes, particularly absurd — but they’re also part of a very long tradition.

This sanitization is not only lazy and rooted in inaccuracies, it’s dangerous, as it silences the cries of revolutionary [Black] people. Moreover, it creates the false and damning sense that if your form of protest is not equivalent to that of a Care Bear hug, it is not legitimate.

And no surprise here: Whitewashing has also long played a role in all this.

The White Savior Narrative

What always struck me about MLK’s “Letter From A Birmingham Jail” is how he referred to White Liberals’ need to center themselves in the liberation of oppressed groups (Black folx in particular) as “paternalistic.” This addresses another significant problem I had with Pepsi’s ad: its White Savior narrative.

You can’t really think about any resistance movement in the American context without thinking of Black and Brown people (most recently, Black Lives Matter and #NoDAPL) putting their lives, minds, and bodies on the line. And yet, this is what this Pepsi ad would have you believe — that we as a people are nowhere to be found when it comes to the fight for our own liberation.

flickr/Victoria Pickering

A recent example of this dynamic that comes to mind is Stonewall — a film that whitewashed the narratives of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera (the foremothers of what is now known as Pride) by centering a fictional gay White man named Danny. An example that has forever stuck in my mind is that of Amistad. Instead of focusing on the group of enslaved Africans who valiantly fought their way off of that titular boat, the focus of the film instead rests on John Quincy Adams’ fight to defend what should be their God-given right to be free.

Granted, there are plenty of smiling and dancing Black and Brown people in the Pepsi ad, but in the end, they become background players in what should be their story. Hell, Black women — once again — are left out almost entirely (save for the one who had to hold Kendall’s wig), despite the fact that we have been integral to resistance movements since the beginning of time.

To be clear, despite Black and Brown folx leading this resistance for the past three or four years, we are apparently not cool enough to do that in Pepsi’s fictionalized dreamscape. This whitewashing, too, is nothing new.

The Commercialization Of Resistance

We also can’t discuss how turning resistance into a Whitewashed “lovefest” harms entire movements without assessing how it simultaneously makes resistance easier to profit from.

Simply put, the goal of Pepsi’s ad was…to sell Pepsi. They’re in the business of making money, and in this case, they attempted to make money by getting you to associate resistance with Pepsi. The subtext was both evident and icky: Grab a Pepsi, and you could become a revolutionary, too!

Riot gear, pepper spray, tear gas, and Black and Brown folx being beaten and disappeared into police vehicles by sadistic cops are missing from this representation because no sane capitalist would want to buy into that side of resistance. Nor is that something Pepsi would like to associate itself with.

This is resistance at its most American: a commodity. A product. Something to be packaged, sold, and propagated.

Again, there is precedent for this. In the ’60s and ’70s, cigarette companies co-opted the counter-culture and feminist movements to peddle a product that was starting to gain negative attention for its health risks. Virginia Slims — launched by Phillip Morris — infamously decided to market directly to women by piggybacking off conversations surrounding women’s liberation. Its advertising campaign directly linked cigarettes with the advancement of women’s rights.

Also in the ’70s, Pepsi rival Coke tapped into Vietnam War resistance with its peace-promoting, highly sanitized “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” ad. Roger Greenaway, a co-writer of the jingle, told The Washington Post, “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.”

Successful campaigns like these signaled to other companies that selling sanitized versions of resistance could be very, very profitable — which is precisely why an ad like Pepsi’s was allowed to get greenlit in the first place.

Yes, the Pepsi ad was particularly egregious. But let’s not pretend it’s unique — absurdly sanitized fantasies of protest and social justice change are as American as apple pie. But if the backlash against this commercial proves anything, it’s that we won’t put up with this any longer.

Join the conversation, won’t you?

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