The reaction to Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad campaign was pointed and angry, unlike the faux-protest in the commercial itself. As soon as it hit YouTube, the chorus of criticism erupted, calling out the company for its poor judgement and lack of sensitivity. Less than 24 hours later, the ad got yanked and Pepsi blurted out its apology.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize,” the company said in a statement. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”
Entitled “Jump In,” the ad features a happy gang of young good-lookings waving placards with painted peace signs and vague, Pepsi-sounding slogans (Join the Conversation!). They head down the street, catching the eyes of a couple of young (good looking) artists and one Kendall Jenner, reality TV star and fashion model, who together seem to dig the vibe given off by the splendidly racially diverse carousers. Kendall joins in, grabs a Pepsi and hands it to one of the (good-looking) riot cops, leading to much celebratory whooping and, in the real world, plenty of actual protest against PepsiCo for trivializing social justice movements for the sake of selling soda pop.
The major claim has been that by appropriating themes and imagery from actual protests and by depicting them as light-hearted fun, without serious purpose or even potentially dangerous consequences, the ad disrespects all those who need to use public protest to push for social change.
Elle Hearns, executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute in Washington, DC, and a former organizer for Black Lives Matter, said the ad “plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilizing protests.” “No one is finding joy from Pepsi at a protest,” said Hearns in a statement. “That’s just not the reality of our lives. That’s not what it looks like to take bold action.”
But the ad got it wrong not just in its portrayal of protest, all full of pretty people and good times, but also in its attempt to piggyback on the street cred of social unrest, something that’s being done all the time, says UBC sociologist Rima Wilkes, but done particularly poorly in this case.
“I can’t think of too many [protest] movements that are pro-capitalist,” says Wilkes to the UBC student paper, the Ubyssey. “Real young people in a real protest simply wouldn’t rally around a product like the way they do in this ad.”
Wilkes says that corporate branding often works by trying to pass off a product as hip and happening, just that in Pepsi’s case, the tone, delivery and subject matter had glaring problems, enough to cause a public uproar.
“They want you to think, ‘I’m like these people! I’m young and good looking and cool!’” said Wilkes. “This kind of insidious branding is everywhere. This commercial is getting picked on, but there’s an element of randomness to that. This isn’t the first commercial to have problematic representation.”
Despite the outrage, however, an opinion poll conducted after the commercial’s release found that about half of young Americans actually liked Jump In. Taken by polling company Morning Consult, the results showed that 44 per cent of respondents — and a full 50 per cent of those in the 18- to 29-year-old category — said they had a more favorable view of Pepsi after watching the video. A further 32 per cent said the ad made them more likely to buy Pepsi products, in comparison to 20 per cent who said they were now less likely.