When Nivea ran a recent Facebook ad with the supremacist-friendly tagline “White is purity”, it would have been reasonable to assume that, as far as misguided promotional campaigns go, it had cornered the market. Then Kendall Jenner stepped forward and offered a police officer a can of Pepsi.
In the two-and-a-half-minute video ad, which the soft drink corporation has now been forced to pull, the most fashionable member of the Kardashian clan is in the middle of a photoshoot when a passing protest march catches her attention. She rips off her blond wig, smudges her lipstick, casts off her couture and strides out into the crowd, surveying the scene, ascertaining, with the careful eye of a young Angela Davis or Gloria Steinem, what needs to be done to advance the cause. (The cause is not clear, as their banners, in the Pepsi colours, consist of painted love hearts, peace signs and the slogan “Join the conversation”. Perhaps they’re fighting for the rights of teenage diaries?)
Jenner approaches the line of friendly, pleasant-looking police officers and hands one a can of fizzy pop. A woman in a headscarf photographs her triumph. The cop smiles, and does not pepper-spray, beat, shoot or arrest anyone. The crowd party as if they are in the VIP enclosure at Coachella, safe in the knowledge that they have danced their way to a better world.
“Live Bolder,” says Pepsi, at the end. Bold is certainly one way of putting it. The backlash was swift, furious and witty. Charles M Blow, a columnist for the New York Times, tweeted that he would boycott Pepsi products until the brand apologised for “this blasphemy”, comparing the ad with the iconic Black Lives Matter picture, which captured nurse Ieshia Evans being arrested in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in July 2016. Cans and bottles of Pepsi were Photoshopped into key moments of the civil rights movement, and pictures of police brutality were captioned with, “Kendall, please! Give him a Pepsi!”. If there is one area in which the ad succeeded, it was in its ability to unite people across the political spectrum – even Piers Morgan called it “stupefyingly diabolical” and “snowflake claptrap”.
“It’s a unique skill to have #boycottpepsi trending among both the right and the left. It managed to alienate both sides of an increasingly polarised consumer universe,” says Nicola Kemp, trends editor at advertising trade magazine Campaign, who points out that the ad was made by an inhouse team at Pepsi, which may be why there is a sense that nobody thought to point out its deficiencies before it aired. Kemp argues that not only was the ad tone-deaf, it also failed to make any political point at all, co-opting the imagery, without taking a stand. “You get a lot of people saying we’re in a state of perpetual outrage, that brands should always be aware that taking a stand can create a backlash, and that it’s better to stand for something than for nothing. But in effect it did both: it stood for nothing, with these anodyne signs, and it still created a backlash.”
In 1964, Pepsi first used the slogan “the Pepsi Generation”, which targeted young people and offered its customers an identity based on their allegiance to Pepsi, rather than its competitor, Coca-Cola. In an attempt to win over young, broke people that might also resonate with millennials, Pepsi highlighted the fact that it was cheaper than Coke. “Who is the Pepsi Generation?” asked a voiceover on one of its ads. “Just about everyone with the young view of things. Livelier, active people with a liking for Pepsi-Cola!” This, in turn, inspired perhaps the most famous use of activism in advertising history: Coca-Cola’s “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad from 1971. According to its songwriter, Roger Greenaway, using bohemian-looking, racially diverse young people to sing about togetherness did have a point to make. “I think it was the flower-power era, and most of America was tiring of the Vietnam war. The lyric, although not overtly anti-war, delivered a message of peace and camaraderie,” he explained in 2015.
Dr John Jewell, of Cardiff University, who teaches on advertising, propaganda and political communication, sees a direct connection between the two rivals back again the other way, directly tracing the new Pepsi ad to Coke’s 1971 spot. “What Pepsi was doing was seeking to show its social responsibility. It’s classic cause-related marketing, because in aligning itself with good causes, it boosts sales and brand loyalty.”
Just look at this year’s Super Bowl ads: from Budweiser to Airbnb to Google, a surprising number of ads pushed a Trump-baiting, pro-diversity message. Meanwhile, outside the world of advertising, huge brands are doing their best to signal their progressive sensibilities. Take, for example, Apple providing rainbow-branded T-shirts for the 8,000 members of its staff who marched at San Francisco’s Pride march.
The digital era has had enormous ramifications for the advertising industry, which has been forced to adapt, as first reliable broadband, and then smartphones, meant that consumers were able to switch off from campaigns that they would previously have been unable to avoid.
In the 90s, brands could simply throw enough money at a campaign to “interrupt their way into culture”, according to Dylan Williams, chief strategic officer at advertising agency Droga5, which works with brands such as Uniqlo, Seat and Danone. That’s no longer the case.
In 1999, the US ad agency StrawberryFrog coined the phrase “movement marketing”; one of its key points is to avoid trying to convince an audience of something they don’t know yet, but to tap into what they already believe. A brand should be seen as “sharing, not selling”. Williams says that there are companies that have taken this approach and used it in a positive way – he talks about Nike moving its marketing money away from huge-name celebrities and instead putting it into community training initiatives and races. This appearance of corporate altruism has become commonplace, as car companies create and promote green initiatives, or beauty brands promote a “natural look”, or fashion companies stick feminist slogans on their T-shirts.
Jewell suggests that when this goes wrong, as it appears to have done with Pepsi, it can be detrimental to activism. “It’s an easy way for us to politicise ourselves. It’s suggesting that you don’t actually have to take part in supporting Black Lives Matter if you’re white. All you have to do is buy Pepsi and your support is telegraphed. In a way, when we support things on social media – whether it’s weeping for France or praying for Syria – that’s an extension of that mentality, that we can show our support through consumerism.”
But there is a distinction to be made between a £500 jumper with the words Radical Feminist across the chest and the kind of marketing that involves companies actually getting involved in the causes they say they support. This is largely why we have seen so many companies adopting a caring and sharing identity over the past two decades. Hitching its wagon to the environment, or LGBT rights, or feminism, for example, is a way for a brand to look good, which increases consumer loyalty, which makes the brand more money.
Kemp says: “Brands such as Unilever are making an impressive investment not just in communicating a message of sustainability but in making a tangible impact on the communities they work within and their employees.” She adds: “They’re well thought-out, they’re invested in, they partner with NGOs.”
Jewell says that ultimately, if a business is making money while also putting that money where its mouth is, then it seems pointless to complain about it. “You could argue that it does deflect criticism, but on the other hand, if it does actually save lives or improve the conditions of some people, that has to be a good thing.” In many ways, just as technology has forced companies to change the way they persuade people to give them their money, it has also meant they are forced to behave better. “What greater visibility these companies now have in the digital era means they have to act more responsibly now, because if they don’t, it does affect sales,” says Jewell.In March, to take just one example, L’Oréal announced it would support the C40 Women4Climate initiative, mentoring 500 women in 10 cities who are working towards possible solutions for climate change. “This commitment reflects two of L’Oréal’s major orientations: gender equality and climate protection,” said Alexandra Palt, L’Oréal’s chief sustainability officer, at the time. It’s just one part of a wider initiative for the brand; its mission statements read more like those of an NGO than a cosmetics company.
That is just one of the many ways in which the Pepsi ad fell down: in its crude and multilayered appropriation of political activism, it acted irresponsibly, while attempting to do so under the banner of a social conscience. It seemed like an attempt to hoodwink its intended audience, and if there is one thing young people are wise to, it’s any sense that they’re being cheated.
Kalle Lasn, editor of the anti-consumerist publication Adbusters, says: “It’s the highest order mindfuck I’ve ever seen – the Donald Trump of commercial advertising.”
Williams draws the same comparison. “Frankly, it’s as if Donald Trump created the spot. The dystopian read on where brand communication is going is the awful current reality of a post-truth world, where we lie, we create alternate facts, we try to hoodwink the public with artifice, we sidle up to a couple of celebrities, and we hope that 51% of the population like it. I think it could be the worst ad of all time, and we have made a fair few of those, as an industry.”
Still, he says, there has been at least one positive to come out of it – for once, everyone has been on the same side, even if just for a moment. “For me, the most refreshing thing about today is that everybody hates it,” he says.