‘Pepsi’s tone-deaf Kendall Jenner ad deserves to be criticised’

Reducing the current global protest movement to a supermodel handing out cans of Pepsi feels terribly misjudged, according to Marketing Week’s Thomas Hobbs.

Teaming up with the world’s biggest supermodel Kendall Jenner to target a soft drink at millennials sounds like a pretty safe bet. Yet just 24 hours after airing its latest celebrity-driven TV campaign, Pepsi has had to defend itself from a spectacularly negative social media reaction.

Since the Pepsi ad, which was created by PepsiCo’s in-house content creation arm, aired on 3 April, there have been 124,598 social media posts referencing it, according to digital agency Meltwater. And of the 105,524 posts by members of the public, 45% (47,202) have been negative compared to 27% (28,871) that are positive.

Pepsi has also been the top trending topic globally on Twitter for the best part of 24 hours, as savage memes (see below) rip apart the awkwardly political campaign. On YouTube, meanwhile, the ad has more than 15,000 thumbs down compared to just 3,000 likes.

“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,” says a Pepsi spokesman in response to its critics.

So what’s all the fuss about? The ad shows Jenner prancing about looking Instagram fresh as images of frustrated-looking, multi-cultural artists flash on the screen. Soon enough, a protest – which the artists are part of – begins walking by Jenner as she’s preoccupied with a fashion shoot.

Looking like the concerned multi-millionaire messiah that she clearly is, Jenner gets tempted out of all the posing by an Asian protestor and marches over furiously to join the protestors, who are carrying signs with family-friendly messages such as “Join the conversation”.

Jenner picks up an ice cold Pepsi and walks over to a nearby cop, as a freakishly happy Muslim protestor energetically snaps their ‘powerful’ exchange. She hands the cop a Pepsi, with the act of solidarity making everybody in the crowd start hugging like the last scene of The Shawshank Redemption. The police officer flashes a knowing smile at a colleague and the slogan ‘Live for Now’ flashes up on the screen.

We live in an era where standing for something socially is now integral to the strategy of major businesses such as Unilever. Globescan’s 2016 public radar shows 40% of ‘aspirational consumers’ – the world’s emerging middle class – want to choose brands that “have a clear purpose and act in the best interests of society”.

However, the Pepsi ad is a prime example of what getting this wrong looks like. It feels like a cheap attempt to spin a corporate line out of important protest movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the Women’s March.

Jenner’s symbolic walk over to the police actually mirrors BLM protestor Leshia Evans, who was arrested and forcibly thrown to the ground (see above) when she dared to walk over to US officers. Her crime? I guess she forgot to offer them a Pepsi.

When Starbucks recently took a stand against President Trump’s Muslim ban, marketing professor Paul Baines told Marketing Week: “People may feel it is not the place of a company like Starbucks to get involved in such issues and so may perceive a ‘jumping on the bandwagon effect’. They might think there is a ‘manipulative intent’ on the behalf of Starbucks – that this policy pronouncement is a marketing ploy.”

While I’m not suggesting Baines’ comments are necessarily true in regards to Starbucks, they are a spot on assessment of what Pepsi has got wrong here. The soft drink giant is no stranger to political ads. In fact, it launched a campaign about Vietnam back in 1971. Let’s just hope Pepsi takes a lot longer than 46 years before it unleashes its next political message.