Last week Pepsi released a new commercial and the reaction was not what the brand expected. Not only was there huge backlash and outrage towards the ad but it sparked a serious conversation that the brand was in no way prepared for. Within 48 hours of its release, the ad had nearly 1.6 million views on YouTube and the Internet was quick to respond, with users calling the ad “inappropriate,” “tone deaf” and “tasteless”. SNL even did a short skit making fun of the ad and the absurdity of the whole concept.The brand’s attempt to tap into the protest wave clearly missed the mark. The ad begins by showing millennials of all different ethnicities marching down a street in something that looks similar to a “Black Lives Matter” protest. There are mundane signs that read “peace” and “join the conversation” and nothing about the setting, from the attractive extras to the main characters, looks authentic. Model Kendall Jenner is featured as one of the main characters, along with an Asian cellist, and a Muslim photographer. When the cellist passes Jenner, who is modeling for a photoshoot, they lock eyes and then Jenner decides to “join the conversation” and leave her set to participate in the demonstration. There are some fun high-fives as Jenner takes in the scene only to have it come to a halt when the protestors meet, in the words of Late Show host Stephen Colbert “ the world’s least intimidating police force.” Luckily, Jenner knows how to handle police officers at a protest; hand them a Pepsi. The commercial ends with the police officer taking a gulp, then a roar of approval and excitement from the demonstrators.
So many people felt that the ad was Pepsi’s way of appropriating the “Black Lives Matter” movement for commercial purposes. The ad gave the impression the brand takes advantage of serious issues and movements to sell soda; not a good impression. So why didn’t Pepsi’s marketing team see this folly? Larry Hackett, former editor in chief of People Magazine and managing partner of Ten Media, a editorial content agency, explains:
“You can imagine a meeting where they (Pepsi) are saying they need to be more relevant to young people. Young people are not drinking as much soda, they are drinking more juice or sports drinks, let’s get relevant. So they looked at focus groups, different data and graphs and they realized young people like protests, they like celebrities, they like the Kardashians. But if you put that all in a pot and it doesn’t taste very good. They created some kind of Frankenstein marketing. All marketing is a compression of ideas into a very very small spot. On paper they had a concept, something they thought would work out but it didn’t. What Pepsi wanted was relevance and to appeal to young people but did the opposite of that.”
The brand was so focused on being “relevant” that all logic went out the window! The ad was done in-house, because of this it lacked the creative rigor a knowledgeable marketing firm would bring to the table. Nothing about the ad was relatable and nothing felt authentic.
Pepsi initially defended the ad stating it was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding” and “we did not intend to make light of any serious issue.” The ad has since been pulled.
Cautionary Tale For Brands
Pepsi isn’t the only brand to experience a marketing blunder, just days before their ad was released Nivea sparked controversy for its new deodorant ad. The ad featured the words “White is Purity” in bold letters with a woman in a white bathrobe. The deodorant, the product for which the ad was created for, is barely noticeable in the lower right corner of the ad. The ad was posted to Nivea’s Middle East Facebook page and was promptly pulled when social media users accused the brand of being “racist” and “inappropriate”.
Another company recently in the news was United Airlines, who has had several public image blunders this year alone, most recently for forcefully removing passengers from an overbooked flight after no one volunteered to give up their seats. With all these advertising and public relations mishaps it is important for companies to address the importance of branding correctly. Companies should take special care to ensure that the messages they are sending to the public cannot be misconstrued. This is where creative agencies come into play; they help ensure the proper research is conducted and diverse groups of people are working on marketing efforts. Mara Epstein, Professor of media studies at Queens College explains the importance of an outside perspective in light of Pepsi’s failed ad:
“In the creative process you get so caught up in the bubble of creating, that unless you show it outside of the bubble, you don’t know it’s going to be wrong. Maybe they didn’t test it or they tested it with the wrong people.”
Companies should take extra care to make sure they are developing creative marketing strategies that ensure that there is not only diversity, but oversight and management of test groups pools; you don’t want the pool too shallow.