Pepsi: For those who think young. This was the soda brand’s slogan from 1961-1964, and was apparently the feeling they were trying to bring back with their latest ad, which is a kumbaya take on the modern protest. Only, based on the backlash from, well, everyone, the brand wasn’t actually thinking at all.
If you’re not sure what we’re talking about, check out the ad here (since removed by the brand, but kept alive by the wonderful people of the internet). It features Kendall Jenner, who as a white straight wealthy famous supermodel is *definitely* the poster child for injustice, creating harmony throughout the land by presenting a peace offering of Pepsi to the stone-faced cops who are watching and waiting for this protest to go from vibrant to violent in .25 seconds.
That is one version of the narrative, at least, and it’s certainly not the one that Pepsi wants told. Which begs the question, how oh how did we get here? It’s the question that the Twitter-verse has been debating all week, for good reason. There are few things millennials resent more than a brand attempting to profit off of a cause that matters to them, which is exactly what Pepsi did. This fact about millennials is basically Marketing 101 at this point, so it’s a little scary to think that such a big brand can make such a major mistake in advertising. Which begs another set of questions – with the many layers of approval required in the creative process, how did this ad make it all the way through production? Is the Pepsi creative team that dense, or are they actually smarter than all of us? Was this whole thing a ruse to get people talking? Was the ad actually a guerilla marketing tactic from Coke?
There are people who ascribe to all of the above theories, but we’re thinking it’s a bit more nuanced than that, and that’s where the nuggets of wisdom lie for all of us who deal with brands on a large and small scale. Pepsi definitely wanted to start a conversation with the ad – you don’t hire a celebrity with 21.4 million Twitter followers in an attempt to stay silent. But unfortunately for all of us, content is not produced or consumed in a vacuum.
For every high school girl stalking and praising Kendall Jenner’s every move on Snapchat, there’s a middle-aged Women’s March or Black Lives Matter organizer who’s seen the uglier side of protesting. Even if the target audience receives the message as it was intended, it doesn’t mean that others won’t see it and react differently. As much as we would all like to deliver our marketing messages directly to our audience and have them understand exactly what we’re trying to convey, content must always be considered in a cultural context. Always.
Which brings us to our second nugget of wisdom. An outside perspective or two is often key to success. Much has been made of the fact that Pepsi’s internal creative team conceptualized and produced the ad. When you are that close to your brand’s message, you can inadvertently develop tunnel vision, because duh, you work with it day in and day out. Whether this is an outside agency or just some diverse focus groups, bringing others in to help provide that cultural context is key. Pepsi probably did test this ad, but it’s not a stretch to think that perhaps their focus groups, made up of a narrowly defined target audience, nodded and smiled at this trendy protest, the researchers checked their boxes, and everyone moved on. Until the brand had to majorly pause and reverse course.
Maybe they could have avoided the reversal if they had actually talked to some of the groups that they attempted to represent. They could have shared insights over a cold one, or two. Cold Pepsi, that is. Because Pepsi is the missing ingredient to world peace. Kendall Jenner told us so.