Pepsi pulls protest-themed video after online outrage

With an ad that sought to spark discussion in an era of heated protests, yet another high-profile company stomps its way into a political minefield.

It’s rare that an issue can unite both left and right in equal levels of indignation, but Pepsi was forced to pull a new video campaign Wednesday after a major misfire.

The now-removed video tells a fictional story about a protester—played by model Kendall Jenner—who wins huzzahs from fellow demonstrators after handing a can of pop to a cop.

After years of protests over politics and allegations of police excesses, Pepsi appears to have waded into the same shark-infested waters that have claimed other brands in recent years.

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company stated. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

(Give brand managers bonus points for apologizing to the model, who has been the subject of online ridicule.)

Intentionally or not, the ad was released on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, a fact not lost on the Twitter orcs assaulting Pepsi’s corporate castle walls.

Pepsi’s video sought to project youth and hipness in keeping with successful campaigns dating back to its 1980s-era Michael Jackson commercials. No doubt its marketing team seriously considered the controversy the video would generate.

Online fury

Still, the cola company appears not to have anticipated the level of indignation it would shake up. A New York Times headline reads, ” Pepsi Ad With Kendall Jenner Trivializes Black Lives Matter, CriticsSay.” The noted civil rights journal Elle scolds, ” Pepsi and Kendall Jenner Co-opt the Resistance to Sell You Soda.”

Nor, surely, was Pepsi courting this zinger from Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter:

Pepsi initially stood by its commercial. In a statement to AdWeek (” Pepsi’s Tone-Deaf Kendall Jenner Ad Co-opting the Resistance Is GettingClobbered in Social“), the fizzy-beverage icon stated, “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.”

The ad was produced by PepsiCo’s in-house content creation arm, Creators League Studio, the company stated. Pepsi’s press release on the ad crowed that the video “takes a more progressive approach to truly reflect today’s generation and what living for now looks like.”

But why?

While Pepsi pauses to reflect, would whatever big-bucks consultant who keeps persuading major brands to wade into political minefields please raise your hand? Many in Medialand are curious: Did nobody see this coming? Or is the selling point that any social media hullabaloo boosts brand awareness, even if customers are shaking their fists at you?

The whole blowup is ironic, given that Pepsi’s intended message seems to be that of reconciliation. There’s no difference between police and any given assortment of guitar-strumming, cello-lugging, hijab-wearing protesters that can’t be resolved over a can of soda, the video implies.

David Haigh, chief executive of Brand Finance, stated in an email: “Ill-conceived campaigns equally have the power to significantly erode hard-earned brand equity. Pepsi, which already had a difficult 2016 with its brand value dropping by 4 percent to $18.3 billion dollars, could face further losses in the value and strength of its brand as a result of this ad.

“Companies are right to push the boundaries and take risks when it comes to marketing products, but this proves that fallout from a single video can have a very damaging effect.”

Trouble is, Twitter isn’t buying it. People mocked the ads with images ranging from Tiananmen Square to the civil rights struggle. Also, does it count as good PR when people mention your competitor?

One wag dropped in an image of a protester in need of a cola caffeine fix.

Others remembered confrontations with cops that weren’t so friendly.

Even Stephen Colbert got in on the act.


(Image via)

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