Why The Pepsi Controversy Is Important
By Moira Dugan
Over the past week the popular soft beverage brand, Pepsi, has been receiving a lot of negative backlash following the release of their latest video ad for their “Live for now” campaign. The ad was launched on Monday April 3, 2017, however, because of the negative feedback it received primarily through social media platforms, Pepsi removed the content by Wednesday April 5th. Although it was removed, it has reappeared in The New York Times, US Weekly, and The Atlantic, to name a few, and was even the punch line of an SNL skit over the weekend. The controversy will pass with time, however, today’s marketers and advertisers should keep note of the ad, and the lessons Pepsi learned from it.
Pepsi is not the first, and far from the last, brand to attempt to centralize around current social and political issues in their ads. In the 2017 Super Bowl LI, many of the halftime ads contained political and social messages. Audi, for example, also withstood a great amount of criticism for their half time commercial which took a stance on equal pay. In recent years and especially following the 2017 presidential election, the political and social landscape has been filled with a lot of tension. And for marketers and advertisers, such as Pepsi, it is a difficult terrain to cover.
One of the major mistakes Pepsi made was failing to put their money where their mouth was. Airbnb who launched a political ad during Super Bowl LI – addressing the issue of accepting refugees – had a solid stance on their campaigns message before they released their ad. The campaign, #weaccept, stood behind displaced peoples and was offering housing to those who were affected by natural disaster, no matter where they come from, what they look like, or what they believe in. And for marketers and advertisers, it is important to understand a brands values because consumers are aware and can easily piece together the sincerity or insincerity of a brand’s message.
Secondly Pepsi’s choice of celebrity Kendall Jenner highlighted the weight a cohesive message carries. Whether you love, hate or are indifferent towards Jenner, her own personal values and public perceptions are very important. Pepsi utilized straightforward imagery when they choose to depict a march/protest, however by choosing to use Jenner, it created a contradictory message. Majority of the marches and protests in 2017 have been over injustices and disparities felt by minority groups in America, and of all celebrities, Jenner does not reflect someone who has withstood injustice or inequality. One common perception of the Kardashians is that they have done nothing to deserve everything they have gotten, which quickly creates an image of privilege, a quality that strongly conflicts with the groups Pepsi was trying to portray.
And although companies have often taped into social trends to make their ads relevant, it is not always best to jump right in, especially when addressing touchy topics.
Marketers and advertisers need to have a well-rounded understanding of the topics that they want to approach, because it will not go unnoticed if it is hot or trending topic for debate. Although Pepsi “was trying to portray a global message of unity, peace and understanding” they missed the mark therefore portraying themselves as misinformed and “tone-deaf” according to many headlines.
However, the most important thing for marketers and advertisers to take away now is what Pepsi does next. They choose not to defend their ad, but rather apologize to their consumers and to Jenner. It is a tough decision to make, and perhaps not always the right one. Who knows what would have happened had Pepsi stood behind their ad and fought every negative comment they had, but now that they have chosen their path it is important that they stick to it. Now that Pepsi is in damage control mode, it is vital that other companies and creators watch not only Pepsi’s response but the consumer’s response to Pepsi’s in order to avoid similar mistakes.