How and Why Pepsi Joined the Wrong Conversation (Part II)

Last week, we made a list of general grievances with Pepsi’s romanticized depiction of current American protests. The list continues….

3. Nothing as simple as a can of soda can ease tensions at a protest. Evidently the point of any advertisement is to portray one’s product as something that does more than just its intended purpose. I’ve seen commercials were a woman buys a Panda Express meal and by doing so runs into a man who later becomes her soul mate. I’ve seen the famous advertisement in which Seattle Seahawks/Atlanta Falcons fullback Derrick Coleman overcomes his deafness to become a Super Bowl champion because of the Duracell-brand batteries powering his hearing aid. That commercial legitimately brings me to tears every time I watch it. But Pepsi should’ve been more careful when establishing that a soft beverage can ease the tensions between police officers monitoring a protest and the demonstrators taking part in that very protest. Speaking from personal experience, I once had to report on a riot in Berkeley that resulted from Trump supporters clashing with anti-Trump groups after the conservatives attempted o hold a March for Trump. I tried interviewing some of the officers standing by at the protest and I can tell you that they weren’t men in their twenties wearing baseball caps and open to flirting with attractive models like in Pepsi’s commercial. These men and women understood the severity of the conflict they were trying to contain. Aside from being clad in riot armor, face masks, heavy steel helmets, carrying shields and sporting batons the expressions on their face showed worry, contemplation, and emotionless focus. I’m not saying it’s impossible to befriend a police officer on duty but the portrait Pepsi painted with the attractive cop taking a sip from the Pepsi he is given by Kendall Jenner is one again heavily romanticized and not preparing today’s youth for the real dangers they face if and when they choose to demonstrate.

4. It made a tasteless reference to famous BLM/Vietnam War pictures. The internet was quick to point out that the act of Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi can to a police officer was meant to emulate a famous image from a Black Lives Matter protest from July 2016. The iconic image shows a young black woman being both peaceful and graceful and officer clad in riot gear arrest her. While I will agree that Pepsi was probably trying to emulate that picture, I will go as far as to say that Pepsi was attempting to emulate an even older and more iconic photograph. I believe that Pepsi was making a reference to the iconic picture in which a college student places a flower inside the barrel of a rifle being held by an officer controlling a protest against the Vietnam War. Just as the college student was giving a peace offering (in the form of a flower) to an officer in a Vietnam War protest taking place five decades ago, Pepsi was most likely trying to equate that action to Kendall Jenner offering a riot officer a peace offering in the form of a soft beverage. Evidently, Pepsi failed. Handing someone a can of soda is not nearly as sincere and symbolic as placing a flower inside the barrel of a gun.

Since the flurry of massive global backlash, Pepsi has the pulled the commercial from the airwaves although the advertisement can still be found in its entirety online. In a bizarre turn of events, Pepsi made a formal apology to Kendall Jenner because of the death threats and other severe criticisms she’s received. Personally, I’m under the opinion that Kendall Jenner must have known the risks that go along with any celebrity endorsement. Furthermore, Jenner was paid millions of dollars to partake in this project and was not forced to do so against her will. Nevertheless, the main lesson we can take from this debacle is that it’s never acceptable to make light of the civil unrest taking place around the world right now for capital gain. This commercial at its core was “cheapening the brand” of the modern protest and the internet was having none of it. The one positive outcome from this campaign is that Pepsi’s disregard for today’s protesters united the global activist community to tell corporations such as Pepsi that they will not be so grossly misrepresented without putting up a fight.

But terrible and tasteless commercial or not, I was always more of a Coca Cola person.

Controversial Pepsi Ad 2017
(Top) Bernie Boston’s Pulitzer Prize-nominated photograph of anti-Vietnam War protester George Harris placing a flower inside the barrel of a gun held by a solider of the 503rd Military Police Battalion in 1967. (Bottom) A still-image taken from Pepsi’s advertisement in which Kendall Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to an officer monitoring a protest in 2017. Was Pepsi trying to emulate Boston’s iconic photograph with Jenner’s gesture? If so, the end result is worse then failure.