It only took 24 hours for Pepsi to release a statement saying they were yanking their tone-deaf “protest” advertisement — one that ended in Kendall Jenner offering a Pepsi to a cop. But this isn’t the first big-budget ad that should have been left on the cutting-room floor, and it won’t be the last. To get a better understanding of how the advertising sausage gets made and how it can go wrong, the Cut asked ad-world professionals (who don’t work at Pepsi, where the spot was produced in-house) to get their expert input.
“I think the message that Pepsi hoped would come out of it is that Pepsi is in touch with what is going on. It would get young people thinking, ‘Is Pepsi a brand for me?’ But they missed the point. It’s completely overproduced. If you want something to feel at all genuine, why are you using celebrities? Let alone celebrities that have no association whatsoever with the thing you’re advertising.
“It makes sense that this was done in-house because it doesn’t have the creative rigor that an outside ad agency would bring. People at the agency rip each other to pieces if something isn’t good. It’s harder for that stuff to get made by an ad agency. I think what probably happened in this case is that someone just really wanted to use Kendall Jenner. Someone inside attached themselves to the thought that she is really of the moment. It’s really transparent when we do that. If you’re going to use a celebrity, you really need to have a good reason to use them.
“The world is craving authenticity, even if authenticity is a completely overused word. People want these things to feel real. Like use real people. This ad was the least relatable piece of communication I’ve ever seen. It feels manipulative. People are not stupid. I think they were smart to take it down. It looks like it could cost $2 million just for production alone … And having Skip Marley do the music doesn’t make a difference. Even if you had Migos do the soundtrack. Even if Offset had written the soundtrack, purely out of love for Pepsi, it wouldn’t have worked.
“Pepsi will recover just fine and this will be forgotten in a very short period of time. It will probably do Kendall Jenner more harm than it will do Pepsi because it will hurt her representation with other brands. It takes the sparkle off a little bit because the backlash was so bad. A lot of the backlash is about the fact that it’s her. Puma had a recent ad campaign with Cara Delevingne, ‘Do You.’ They were encouraging people to be themselves. You would not use Kendall Jenner in something like that now.”
—An anonymous industry executive
“It’s not uncommon for corporations to co-opt things that exist in culture — that happens all the time. That no one thought that this particular one was going to be a problem was where the problem was. 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.
“The younger people are probably the most junior people on the team; for them to say something, they would have to be really confident in themselves. To have a younger millennial account person go up to a senior creative person and say, ‘We’re not going to do this, we think there’s a problem with it’ — that’s an uncomfortable power position to put a young person into.
“Products don’t solve problems. They’re trying to present a product as a solution to a very large, very important, very serious cultural and societal problem. The only way a company can get away with doing that kind of thing is if they’re really doing something. You can’t tell me that you’re doing that, Pepsi.”
–Mara Epstein, Ph.D., Professor of media studies at Queens College and author of Black Ops Advertising: Native Ads, Content Marketing and the Covert World of the Digital Sell
“It’s very possible that they did copy testing on the script. But if you’re not doing visual testing, too, then you’re not seeing that it’s socially irresponsible. If you’re not visually seeing it, there may have been a disconnect.
“This kind of thing happens when you don’t have inclusion. Inclusion has to be part of your decision-making process. If there are no decision makers that represent the world that it is now, the world as we see it, then these kinds of things of happen.
“I’ve been in those situations where — being multicultural, being an African-American, being a female, I felt like I didn’t have a voice. I’ve been in that situation where I know it’s wrong, but if you’re at the junior level, you’re not going to put your neck out there. You’ve got to pressure test it. If you’re a company who is fortunate enough to be working with or have a relationship with a multicultural agency that represents the world, if you run it by them, they’re going to let you know that this ad is just culturally irresponsible. Even touch base with your PR department. They’re going to be the ones who have to manage it.
“I think it was the correct response to take it down. It opens up the conversation that way. Where did we go wrong? Now they can look at their process and really see who was represented. Who was at the table? At the bottom line, if your executive leadership or brand team is not diverse or inclusive, these mistakes are going to keep happening. The Tory Burch stumble. The Nivea stumble. It’s starting to get people to realize that we’ve got to have fair representation.”
—Deadra Rahaman, senior consultant with Urban Icon Agency
“Who was in the room saying, ‘Uh, there’s a problem in the script here’? Maybe it started as a looser idea, something where she was just joining a movement. It may have started much more vanilla, or a less terrible idea than it manifested itself into. But this ad is fundamentally flawed. They were probably in a vacuum in a room, where they dream up these ideas and spit out the culture to the people. It’s a myopic view. The environment doesn’t seem to be one where someone would have been supported enough to stop it.
“There is something about crafting a spot that obviously has this much attention put into it. You don’t get Kendall. You don’t go on set and have a white cop being handed a Pepsi. From the catering to the creative director, it’s crazy that no one said, ‘Hey, this isn’t cool.’ There were a lot of extras on that set. But you know what, it’s a business. They’re getting paid to do it. Back in the day, it’d be about the talent: Whoa, I can’t believe Bob Dylan sold out. But now, it’s a different conversation: Whoa, I can’t believe that message was that off-base, that so much money and attention was behind it.
“You’re always going to get into trouble with some group when you’re selling carbonated soda. That is a touch point no matter what. There is a way to sell something that a vast majority of people will buy and tend to like and still put your foot down for things you believe in. You can easily not be perfect but be working towards supporting things better.
“To do that, you better have a diverse board to start. That’s what people are reacting to. A lot of brands would like to be the Patagonia of ‘X.’ Patagonia fundamentally began as a company interested in doing mission-based work. If you don’t do that, you shouldn’t pretend that you do. You can be authentic, just be careful about how much credit you’re taking on. Anyone who is making a statement ad right now should probably be thinking about this kind of stuff. Can you really stand behind what you’re promising? Are we truly involved in that conversation? You should be ready to have the next conversation then.”
—Nick Childs, CCO of Society
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