Let’s get to the point very quickly, Pepsi’s latest advertisement is awful. Launched yesterday, “Live for the Now Moments Anthem” stars Kendall Jenner and violates proven advertising principles and good taste.
I would post a link to the ad, but it has coincidentally become unavailable.
The ad opens with lonely artists in proximity of smiling protesters who are marching through a street. The protesters raise friendly and generic signs emblazoned with harmless peace signs and useless corporate slogans like “Join the Conversation.”
What are they protesting? We don’t know. But anyone who watched news reports during the Black Lives Matter protests knows the ad’s implication.
This scene of musicians and marchers is set in the context of a photo shoot with a non-smiling Kendall Jenner and smiling patrons in an open-windowed cafe.
Completely without provocation, the smiling musicians join together and smiling break-dancing commences. Yes, break-dancing.
Then Kendall takes off her wig (this is not an exaggeration) to join the march which has been paused (not confronted with riot gear) by a line of police officers. Kendall steps through the crowd and hands a police officer a Pepsi. He smiles, nods. The crowd applauds, jumps up and down, hugs and generously gives out smiling high-fives.
It’s everything cheesy and painful about advertising and borders on a plagiarist attempt to modernize Coke’s famous “Hilltop” (or “I’d like to Buy the World a Coke”) advertisement. Strange for a direct competitor.
It’s also much more than that. It’s a tone-deaf appropriation of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It trivializes the underlying and very serious issues facing the African-American community and the police. The reaction on Twitter, predictably and rightfully, hasn’t been kind.
I’ve been on the “inside” of brand discussions on whether and how to create effective and strategic signature marketing campaigns that address social/environmental issues. I know what it’s like, but had I been involved with this one my advice would have been simply: No.
So where did Pepsi go wrong? Here are the lessons drawn from this #PepsiMoment:
Lesson One: Just, don’t do it
First, ask yourself should we (your brand, your company) take on a controversial issue? The answer is probably. For divisive issues, the underlying causes run too deep for your brand to credibly address. Even if your brand has a logical reason to “play in that space,” it hasn’t signed a social contract with consumers worthy of tackling such indelible topics. Unraveling them is nearly impossible and likely inappropriate for a brand.
That being said, you still think your brand should do it? Here’s what you could do:
Lesson Two: Make an Impact
Whether the topic is controversial or not, a company must fulfill at least one of the following principles of action in brand-social movements:
- Increase awareness – a brand must increase attention and action to a topic
- Raise funds – a brand must contribute money and galvanize further resources to address a cause
- Drive impact – a brand must create true positive change
- Provide insight – a brand must break a persistent pattern of sociological thought to spark social innovation, such as unbiased research
Each of these principles requires a level of forethought, attention, strategic planning and financial (and other) resources. The larger the issue, the more required. The Pepsi ad does none of those. Instead consumers are left with a lingering question: “What was all that about?”
There’s no consumer call-to-action, no way to get involved and no indication Pepsi itself is doing anything about it. It's an attempt at a feel-good advertisement that makes you feel-wrong.
Lesson Three: “Right Size” Your Role
Race relations in the US is grounded in centuries of divisive institutional, cultural, political and psychological barriers to change. No singular political figure, organization or community can disentangle this history in a two-minute video. A 75-cent can of soda will never calm a crowd or absolve a nation from its sins.
Even if you have a brand a big as Pepsi, addressing a social issue as significant as race relations is over-ambitious, at best, and offensive. Instead, brands should focus on something smaller with achievable results. Importantly, your brand’s cause should match your role in society. It should have logic and create an emotional connection.
Lesson Four: Don’t try too hard
I’m all for representation in advertising – it’s extremely important. But the Pepsi ad does exhausting gymnastics to show an overly diverse crowd. Even in diverse metropolitan areas like New York City, it comes off as completely unnatural. Representation matters. But when you go to this extent, it appears as a ploy to inoculate yourself of criticism. If only Pepsi had focused more attention on the content and substance of its ad.
Lesson Five: Ground in an Insight
The core of any good advertising or public relations campaign is an insight. An insight is an unspoken human truth that causes you to look at a problem differently. It’s one of the many things missing from the Pepsi ad.
Why are the protesters marching? What role does a Pepsi product play in the protest? Why is handing a can of Pepsi to a cop worth high-fives? These questions are unanswered and therefore makes the ad disingenuous.
Lesson Six: Have a Point-of-View
What is Pepsi’s point of view on this issue? Are they on the side of Black Lives Matter or the police? We don’t know. Instead, the ad celebrates the common traits of the human spirit – the commonalities of joyful music and the beverages we imbibe. They can unite us, according to Pepsi. Break-dancing, too! It’s a bad joke that's not funny.
Most likely, Pepsi knew it couldn’t withstand the blow-back by choosing one side over another. Instead, the brand hopes we would be distracted by smiling protesters and high-fives. Ironically, the company is now experiencing the blow-back it wanted to avoid.
Trying to be everything to everyone is not a marketing strategy. Addressing social and environmental issues necessitate "an edge." The bigger the issue, the sharper that edge needs to be. All we get from this ad is weak tea.
Lesson Seven: Choose a Spokesperson Carefully
I don’t know Kendall Jenner. I don’t really care. All I know is that the “brand” of the Jenner and Kardashian families is tainted with vapid privilege. Too harsh? Even if you are a fan, you have to agree that’s a perception in most people’s minds.
Just like the Pepsi brand doesn’t have permission to attempt to ameliorate race relations, Kendall Jenner is hardly the right choice for such a subject. She has no credentials. Her reported charitable efforts are heartening, but none of the causes she supports focus on race.
I always advise brands to very cautiously consider celebrity spokespersons. This is a good example of why caution is wiser than full embrace. Why should I listen to her about race relations? What perspective does she offer? Why would Pepsi consider her a uniting force of humanity on one of the most divisive issues facing America? Again, these questions are unanswered.
Tackling social or environmental issues can be a useful way for a brand to create positive change. Further, it’s an effective way to establish and deepen emotional connections with consumers.
Many have done it successfully in the past, but they do so by following the above lessons as a core part of their cause-branding approach. Unfortunately for Pepsi, all this ad does is create one more addition to the Hall of Shame of corporate advertising.
Presumably this was Pepsi’s attempt to maintain relevancy. Yet, it has the opposite effect.