Pepsi and the Tightrope of Political Consumerism

The latest Pepsi ad featuring model Kendall Jenner was skewered last week by many people on social media.


In a world where controversies seem to erupt every six hours or so, I wouldn’t blame you if you had overlooked the slew of terrible, horrible, no good, very bad product advertisements that were released over the last week to much disdain.

It began last Tuesday, when Pepsi released their latest ad featuring current It Girl and model Kendall Jenner. Prior to its release, the ad was very much hyped up. And why wouldn’t it be? I’m sure Pepsi thought it had a surefire viral hit on its hands, especially when it featured a Jenner/Kardashian and had a contemporary message behind it.

The ad, which was released on YouTube, was described as “a short film about the moments when we decide to let go, choose to act, follow our passion and nothing holds us back.” The 2-minute video that followed carried a theme of resistance and featured Jenner as a model who decides to join a street demonstration after seeing a group of protestors march past her photo shoot. It culminates with a standoff between the protestors and a bunch of cops, whereby Jenner diffuses the tension by handing one of the police officers a can of Pepsi, which he drinks to the sound of cheers and applause.

The ad certainly went viral but for very different reasons than Pepsi intended. The backlash against the soda giant was instantaneous and the concept was widely mocked on social media. The contemporary message that was pushed through came off as tone deaf rather than thoughtful. Though Pepsi initially stood by its production, the ad was ultimately taken down from YouTube and an apology was issued.


Between Profits and Politics

It’s undeniable that corporations across the globe are starting to co-opt activism as a marketing strategy. In the past, brands would deliberately stay away from getting involved in politics at the risk of losing profits. Today, the reverse can be just as true. Consumers, especially those in the millennial age bracket, are now looking to support companies that reflect their values. The advent of social media and petition websites has also made it easier for boycott campaigns to be spread to a wider audience at a quicker pace. Brand executives are taking note of this shift in consumer ethics and are promptly responding by incorporating activism into their companies’ ethos as well as their advertising campaigns.

Just look at what happened at the end of January, when Donald Trump signed his first executive order that has now come to be known as the “Muslim ban.” A boycotting campaign of Uber’s services began on the night of the 29th of January during the first of many protests against the ban. In New York City, the local Taxi Workers Alliance called on its members to avoid the John F. Kennedy International Airport for an hour in support of the demonstration that had sprung up at the airport’s terminals. Uber subsequently announced that surge pricing, which results in higher fares during peak hours, would be turned off for rides originating near JFK.

Many saw this move as an undermining of the taxi strike. On social media, the reaction was swift and ruthless. Uber lost plenty of users when many people started deleting the app from their phones and cancelling their accounts – all while Tweeting their actions under the hashtag #DeleteUber and moving their patronage to other service-providing companies that pledged their support to civil liberties groups or provide opportunities for incoming refugees. Most damagingly, they were also encouraging others to do the same.

Uber didn’t close shop despite the mass deletions of user accounts and its app. However, CEO Travis Kalanick did step down from President Trump’s economic advisory council a few weeks after the boycott campaign started. The lesson learnt from this saga was ultimately a signal to other major brands that staying apolitical during a time in which political apathy can be construed as complicity is a liability that cannot be afforded.


Empowerment or Exploitation?

With all that being said, where does this latest Pepsi ad fit in? Taken at face-value, the commercial might seem well-intentioned enough but scrutinize the details and place it in the wider context of our current global socio-political landscape and you start to see why it’s so problematic. The ad depicts a group of young people of all different races and backgrounds marching in a protest while never actually specifying what they are protesting against. These people carry cardboard signs and placards with things like “Join the conversation” and “Love” painted on as protest slogans but again, it is unclear as to which conversation Pepsi expects us to participate in.

It you’ve paid any attention to the many stories on police brutality against the African-American community over the last three years, you can start to further understand why the image of a (white) protestor handing a police officer a can of Pepsi to loud cheers could come off as vulgar. Activists and organizers, particularly of the Black Lives Matter movement, said that the ad cheapened the meaning behind street protests by romanticizing the act and glossing over its realities.

To be fair to Pepsi, they are not the first company to try and exploit social activism for profits. As Madeleine Davies writes, many other brands have co-opted counterculture resistance movements into advertising campaigns and marketing strategies long before Pepsi even conceptualized their own foray into brand activism. For example, we’ve seen Dove tout their message of body acceptance and women’s empowerment through their many commercials that highlight diversity in beauty. At the height of the euphoria of the legalization of same-sex marriage in America, many brands came out (no pun intended) with LGBT-themed ads to promote their products in a more inclusive manner.

Even Coca-Cola, ubiquitous rival to Pepsi, released a television commercial with diversity and inclusivity as its main themes during the 2017 NFL Super Bowl in early February. Titled “America is Beautiful,” this ad was particularly timely in its delivery as it landed during a time when the Trump administration was just getting settled into the White House and signing executive orders on a multitude of decrees left and right.


Where it Went Wrong for Pepsi

Though this current marketing trend has generated some skepticism, not many of these empowerment-themed ads have triggered as big of a backlash as Pepsi did with theirs. Why exactly did Pepsi fail where others succeeded? Certainly the concept of the commercial itself was extremely flawed even if well-intentioned; however, the execution was poor from start to finish and rather than inspiring change or action, the ad and the company looked disingenuous and greedy instead.

At best, the Pepsi ad can be described as superficial and misguided. At worst, it’s offensive. Pepsi tried embracing brand activism and capitalizing on consumers’ growing social consciousness but it backfired because the ad was a transparent attempt at co-opting a social movement to boost sales. It appropriated imagery and language from multiple movements of resistance that has been happening both in the United States and elsewhere, but failed to actually take a meaningful stand on anything at all.

Ironically enough, the only conversation that circled on everyone’s lips last week was how ridiculous Pepsi and Kendall Jenner were for this ad. It continued to be referenced humorously as the United States began its military intervention into Syria, with numerous Twitter commentators urging the soda company to break tensions in the Middle Eastern country with a 12-pack of the carbonated beverage. How’s that for social change?

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10 thoughts on “Pepsi and the Tightrope of Political Consumerism”

  1. Interesting commentary… love your thoughts on whether social activism resonates with our generation and how to use this to grow the perdana fellows programme

  2. Zainalabidin ali seman

    Interesting. Political consumerism…very dangerous. Maintain impartiality to maintain profitability

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