Pepsi's controversial ad used imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement to sell soft drinks and, rightly, people weren't happy.
This week, Pepsi released its new advert, starring reality star Kendall Jenner. Nothing remarkable there. Unfortunately, Pepsi had decided to use imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement to sell soft drinks and, rightly, people weren’t happy. Since the uproar, Pepsi has withdrawn the ad, so you may not even be able to see it any more, but there are lessons to be learnt.
In case you missed it, the Pepsi ad featured Kendall Jenner, in blonde wig, engrossed in a glamorous photo shoot. Meanwhile, a peaceful protest of some kind is taking place and drifting past the window. The ad cuts to a woman in a hijab struggling with her photography project and a cellist practicing alone, until they’re both drawn towards the protest. It’s a multi-cultural, multi-faith, gender fluid jamboree. Jenner is the last one to join the party. She whips off her blonde wig, tosses it at the only dark-skinned black woman in the piece, struts through the crowd to cheers and approaches the police barricade. It ends with her handing one of the stern-faced police officers a can of Pepsi – he drinks, everyone’s happy.
There are so many things wrong with this advert and you can find full breakdowns on the mistakes elsewhere. However, there are three main lessons for brands to learn from Pepsi’s mistakes:
Black Oppression and Civil Rights Protest aren’t Fashion Trends
The main problem with the advert is that Pepsi saw the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement as something it could co-opt to sell drinks. It’s a crass commercial move that undermines the real struggle the Black Lives Matter movement represents. Pepsi clearly has no interest in the political marches and protests we’ve seen around the world, recently. The company just saw a social media trend and decided to use it to sell a product. At a time when black people are being shot by police in the US and people are rising up in protest, it was a serious misstep.
In addition, the advert used what has become the iconic image of black protest, the lone figure of Ieshia Evans standing in front of riot police. However, the advert replaced a black woman with a famous white woman with no history of political activisim. This not only trivialised Evans’ moment by using it to sell Pepsi, but also removed black people from the protest, also sidelining the other token minorities featured in the ad.
Choose Your Brand Ambassador Carefully
Kylie Jenner was the wrong person to front an already flawed advert for Pepsi. Not only is Jenner a white woman, therefore erasing black women from their own protest, but she is also known in the black community for being culturally insensitive. In addition, Jenner has no connection to the Black Lives Matter movement, in fact she’s never shown any political awareness or support for any civil rights protests or marches. She’s a rich, white woman who is famous for being famous and then became a model and lives in the bubble of privilege that that affords. I’m not knocking her for her lifestyle, but she’s clearly not the right person for a politically charged advert.
Would the Pepsi ad work if they’d used a black woman? It would have been better, but still unwise. Pepsi has used Beyonce in its ads before and she would have been a much better fit for this political message of hope and solidarity. Queen Bey has used black power imagery in her music videos and her last album was a commentary on the black American experience, especially black women. Beyonce would have helped Pepsi avoid the white savior issue of a white woman stepping up to help minorities win their own battle, but ultimately, it would have still been an ad that uses the commodification of black struggle to sell soda.
Diversity in the Boardroom
One of the most shocking things about the Pepsi ad is the number of people who must have seen and approved it. I don’t know who is on the board for Pepsi but I’m willing to bet they’re white because anyone of colour would have seen the problems from a mile away. Hiring from a diverse pool of people, which includes ethnicity, political and religious beliefs, sexuality, gender and social backgrounds is one of the best ways of avoiding embarrassing moments like this latest Pepsi ad. It’s not foolproof, but it helps.
The best thing about the Pepsi ad was the response from ‘black Twitter’…
"Now just wait one second officers.
I have a Pepsi." pic.twitter.com/NW0sddKOOI
— Philip Lewis (@Phil_Lewis_) April 5, 2017
and from Martin Luther King’s daughter, which finally prompted Pepsi to pull the ad.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) April 5, 2017