Pepsi has released a new, blockbuster ad, starring Kendall Jenner. The decision to feature a young supermodel in its advertising is nothing new – Pepsi has been tapping pop culture talent to market its wares since the 80s – but what is different here is the scene that Jenner is asked to act out.
The ad opens with the model engaged in a photo shoot, though she quickly becomes distracted by a civil rights protest march that is taking place nearby. Unlike many protest marches though, this is a largely cheery, and highly fashionable event, with young people smiling and dancing while carrying signs featuring Pepsi’s brand colours and messages such as ‘love’ and ‘join the conversation’.
Unable to resist joining in, Jenner removes her wig and make up (read: becomes her truly authentic self), and marches alongside the others. By the end of the spot, she has made her way to the front of the protest, and we see her confronted by police. But she immediately diffuses any potential tension by handing a nearby cop a Pepsi, which he cheerily sips, while the crowd cheers.
There are many things to get upset about here, and Twitter – of course – has covered them all, with zest. Many viewers have pointed out how the ad belittles the Black Lives Matter movement and the offensive comparison between Jenner’s stance at the end of the ad with the iconic photograph from last year of Leshia Evans standing in front of riot police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Others balk at the general notion that a sugary soft drink can play a part in complex societal problems.
Advertising is reductive by nature – it attempts to take big concepts and ideas and then apply them in a simple fashion to selling products. Success in this is all about tone. It is worth pointing out that Pepsi is not the first soft drinks brand to co-opt politics in its advertising: in the 1970s Coke created Hilltop, an ad that at its core implied that all the world’s problems could be solved by people getting together and sharing a Coke. Popular at the time, this spot still regularly tops the charts as one of the best ads of all time.
So what makes the Pepsi ad feel so tone deaf in comparison? Perhaps it is the specificity of it. In February CR published a piece reporting on the current trend for brands to bring politics into ads, and debated the pros and cons of this. One of the major cons is the risk that by bringing contemporary political issues into advertising, the urgency of the real problems at hand will be diminished.
Whereas Coke’s message was one of general unity and togetherness, Pepsi has dived right into a difficult, upsetting, still developing political situation that – big idea, or no big idea – it has nothing to do with. It even appears to suggest that the current political frustration being expressed in protests is simply a fashion movement, nothing more serious or heartfelt than that.
Plus, we are generally more cynical and brand savvy nowadays. If brands really want us to ‘join the conversation’, they need to show that they actually understand what it is that people are already talking about. And that means going beneath the cloying, fatuous, surface gesture that Pepsi is offering up here.