Being one of the top multinational companies in the world, PepsiCo’s biggest marketing failure in 2017 is still as fresh as it was three years ago. Marketing failures are uncommon especially among such huge multi-national companies like PepsiCo. However, the fact that PepsiCo’s biggest marketing failure 2017 is proof that there are still lessons left to learn in the marketing business. PepsiCo’s biggest marketing failure 2017 is also a reminder to all the multinational corporations to avoid exploitation of social activism to sell their brands.
Introduction to “Black Lives Matter” Movement:
Like many other movements, the Black Lives Matter movement rose in 2013. Its agenda is ending violence, extrajudicial killings and systematic racism against blacks and marginalized communities. After the deaths of some prominent figures in these protests, hundreds of thousands of demonstrations in more than thirty states of the US took the nation by storm in 2015. Their agenda expanded to incorporating racial profiling, police brutality and racial inequality in the US Criminal Justice System and US social system. The effectiveness and seriousness of the matter can be extrapolated from the fact that Palestinians contacted the movement representatives. They advised them on how to tackle police tear gas during protests. Since then, the movement has been viewed as a delegate for other minority communities as well as racial orientations in the US.
PepsiCo and BLM Controversy:
The unfortunate advertisement released by PepsiCo. On April 4th, 2017, was an epitome of the callousness the MNC credited to the malignance and savagery associated with these demonstrations. The advertisement almost rendered insalubrity to the whole issue, instigating millions of people worldwide. Widespread criticisms were made on the Pepsi ad and it had to be taken down immediately. It was indeed, PepsiCo’s biggest marketing failure in 2017.
The footage demonstrated a racially diverse group; laughing, beaming excitedly and cheering on a street. They are carrying signs reading “JOIN THE CONVERSATION”. Is it supposed to look like a protest? Because it does not! People from the LGBT community, Blacks, Mexicans, Asians are all part of this group. The supermodel, Kendal Jenner is in a nearby hotel for a shoot. She rips her wig off and smothers her lipstick to join in with others. Small glimpses of Pepsi cans being drunk by people are shown throughout the ad, who eventually integrate with the protesters. Anyways, coming back to Kendal who is giving high-fives to others, she carries a Pepsi can as well. The demonstration gets halted by a line of policemen; forming a brick wall. It looks like there is going to be a standoff since policemen look grim The crowd seems to cheer her while she carries the Pepsi can to one policeman. He takes it and drinks it, giving his fellows a crooked smile and a nod. Last but not least, she laughs while a Muslim girl in her head wrap takes a picture of Kendal standing in front of the policeman. The advertisement has no script. There is no voiceover. All have been conveyed through visuals. The ad blurs in the end with the message, “Live Bolder… Live Louder”
What is WRONG with the Ad?
- Unclear and Vague:
The message sent through the ad is unclear. We do get the hint that it is delegating diversity, equality and inclusivity but using BLM iconic moments as well as signature features was quite inappropriate. It can be translated as toxic apathy showed by PepsiCo. towards all the people that have died in these protests.
- Appropriation of BLM Moments and Misrepresentation:
The iconic moment in the ad was of Ieshia Evans who stood alone defiantly against a wall of protective shields and batons as they rushed to arrest her, captured in Baton Rouge protest,2016. She was hailed worldwide for her resilience. Here, Kendal is shown as a mimicry of the whole situation, but in a completely different light. She is handing Pepsi can to the policeman and he smirks. This is blatantly outrageous. There are so many things wrong with this part:
- Ieshia Evans was Black:
It displays racism because Ieshia Evans was a black woman and she was seized by the policemen, while Kendal is white and her gesture was appreciated. It trivialized the holistic atrocities people deal with in all countries due to discrimination; lack of opportunities, racial profiling, catcalling, pay gap etc.
- Pepsi is the Ultimate Peacemaker:
The magical Pepsi can is hailed as a “peacemaker” in this ad; for it somehow united the two groups. Hence, all these deaths and protests have been for no reason. Had they used a Peps can, so much blood and death would have been avoided.
- Kendal Jenner; Wrong Voice for Black Rights Activism:
One major flaw was the spokesperson as well. Supermodel Kendal Jenner is a reality TV star and Victoria Secret model. The Kardashians do not hold any association with the whole BLM scenario. The last scandal Kendal had that had any remote resemblance to this was the “cornrow” hairstyle; the classic black hairstyle entailing braided hair. A few celebrities criticized this and indicated for her to actively support these causes for marginalized communities, but they stuck to simply “making” the hairstyle. Hence, the spokesperson for the brand must represent and symbolize the marketing idea of the brand; which in this case was Black Activism.
- Exploitation of Black Movement by Capitalists:
It is funny that the ad ended up offending, not just the racist groups but believers of different political theories as well. Trivializing the deaths of people who were victims of unjustified police brutality by making Pepsi the ultimate solution made socialists and communists and basically capitalist-haters angry. It reflected how these multinational companies could use and take advantage of the deaths of thousands in such protests, and make money from it by selling their brand.
- Blatant Disregard to Black Activism:
The advertisement also cast a very bad shadow over all MNCs being power and wealth-hungry and being tone-deaf to the message and meaning of these protests. It reflected how badly uninvolved they had been in causes that matter, that they painted a completely wrong picture of it. The worst part was Pepsi’s apology. Many BLM top activists felt disrespected when Pepsi did not go even this far in apologizing to those who died in these protests because it was an insolent thing they did and tainted their memories.
- Race Stereotyping:
Despite Pepsi reiterated that the ad was meant to unite all, racism was depicted through the Asian who was shown repeatedly playing cello in the street. This is race modelling and stereotyping; since immigrants are seen earning dimes in US by playing instruments.
What Pepsi Needs To Learn:
Bernice King; daughter of Martin Luther king Jr. tweeted about the ad saying:
“If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi”
Pepsi meant well. But, next time, our advice is to be careful with the equation of your brand. We all know about the power of marketing. But sometimes, some wounds are too deep and too infected to be treated with Dettol. A soda can cannot redeem the bloodshed and barbarity committed in the name of racism. Also, celebrities and star power is an effective strategy as long as they are associated with entertainment. Using them belittles a grave issue like race. It requires voice of a person which people respect in this specific context.
Pepsi needs to be smart about imagery and advertisement strategy because it appeared very contradictory when the last message on the screen screamed: “Live Bolder, Live Louder” when the entire ad was vague and evasive. The voiceovers would have helped their cause in the scandal, had there been one in it.
I guess it all comes down to learning from our mistakes, admitting when we are wrong and avoid repeating them in the future. Marketing is a powerful tool. But, with power comes great responsibility. What PepsiCo. did was a lesson to itself, and all of us. Some wounds heal slowly. Quick treatment may aggravate the pain and worsen it. For a good marketing strategy, avoid entering dangerous waters, respect the sanctity of serious issues and always hold yourself accountable for your actions.
If you like this piece, you should read my other article; “Signature of a True Patriarchy”.