Brand Culture: Pepsi riots
by DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) The recent Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner took a massive nosedive soon after release, so much so that, at the time of writing this, I couldn’t find it on the Pepsi YouTube page and the original article featuring the commercial simply said “this video is no longer available”.
The commercial is a strange combination between montage and storyline. It briefly follows a musician and then a photographer — both of whom display some sort of discontent with a status quo of sorts. They then join a march that passes Jenner’s photoshoot. This, combined with Pepsi, inspires her to join the protest which ends in peace as she hands a police officer a Pepsi.
But what is the anatomy of this ad? It surely didn’t come from nowhere. Protest has been everywhere from music videos to commercials for a good while now. In 2012, the music video No Church in the Wild featured heavy protesting and what seemed to be real violence. In the same year, United Colours of Benetton released Unemployee of the Year — once again a piece that captured some real struggle. For those who recall, this was all short on the heels of the London Riots and the Arabs Spring which, in turn, was the first time that we saw social media be used as a political tool with repercussions. Gary Vaynerchuck sarcastically states that we are free to forget about this thing that overthrows dictators after decades of tyranny.
But why did the Pepsi commercial not do so well? Why did the music video and Unemployee fly while Pepsi had to pull its ad after a short while? To execute properly is a tedious process but the answer lies simply in good cultural insight and strong brand character.
First, the music video was a piece of pop art before it was anything else. With that, I mean that it spoke on behalf of culture before it spoke on behalf of a brand. That makes the world’s difference. It’s the difference between a beer brand saying something and AKA saying something. The one sells a product and is, in all likelihood, little less than a commercial entity. while the other often works hard to become a commercial entity that stands beyond the cultural world.
Think here of people such as Shaun Combs launching a vodka brand (leverages cultural relevance into a commercial space) and comparing that to a company such as adidas (which leverages a commercial entity into a cultural space). The music video was a visual expression of a lyrical expression of a cultural truth by a cultural icon. It could go wrong but it was highly unlikely and, if it did, there was enough cultural weight behind the two artists to allow them to recover.
United Colours of Benetton has a rich heritage of stirring up uncomfortable images, ranging from inherent racist perceptions, violent conflict and damage to the environment. What is important to note here is that these images ran in a pre-Google era, which meant uncensored images were hard to come by. And here we were, looking at them off the back of a clothing brand. The truth, however, is that it was being honest. The brand followed through. There was no ivory tower, no armchair activism that didn’t result in anything. It ran risky images that hammered home uncomfortable realities.
While its focus made a radical shift, the Unemployee of the Year commercial did the same thing. But, instead of shock, it leverages sympathy. The stable element: cultural understanding and fighting for what is right in the eyes of your audience. Being a moral consumer-champion. Unemployee of the Year didn’t lay into bankers or the system; consumers were doing that already. It would be silly and patronising to do that. If you wanted to be in the battle with your consumers, if you really cared, you’d tip a hat and support. You’d recognise that young people who struggle were not failures; instead, they were victims of economic predators who weren’t taking this laying down. They were unemployed but great —they were Unemployees of the Year.
Simply cashed out
At this point, it should become clear why Pepsi fell flat. In many ways, it simply cashed out on the signifiers of protest. It simply looked like a protest while, in reality, contributing nothing. Not even a patronising donation. It simply treated protest and rebellion as a trend. You could almost hear the brand chalking it up to ‘crazy kids’. It dumbed protest down to the most-generic, residual symbolism of them all: the peace sign. And protesters were turned into artists — the now residual icon of rebellion.
If the commercial didn’t reference Black Lives Matter, it would simply have been vacuous and empty. Generic artists rebelling for generic peace. Why generic? Because the symbolism on each side is gleaned from the ’70’s: the cello player, the film photographer and the peace sign. But then, in a modernize-by-numbers exercise, it went with a Jenner in order to drag all these symbols into the 21st century.
From a semiotic point of view, it failed simply because those symbols are outdated. Without exaggerating, this might have been retro in the ’90s, when tie-dyed shirts made a short comeback. But what really offended was the comparison to real modern sociopolitical issues. The world is currently experiencing a shift that Clay Shirky predicted as the response to the modern printing press and that Slavoj Zizek might “jokingly” see as a move towards a communist utopia.
Absence of real understanding
Identity politics are front and center and, in the absence of a real understanding of a collective consciousness or a Lacanian Other, we are holding modern individuals liable for historical ideological crimes. The result is new nationalism where modern individuals are standing up to defend historical ideological crimes. The truth is that, as this unstoppable force is heading to the immovable object, real people stand to lose out.
Pepsi’s attempt at championing the rebellious spirit today is an embarrassment, not only to its understanding of the world but to our industry. I’ve written this before and will most probably write it again but we hold the levers of influential concepts and there is an onus on us to take morally correct actions that are culturally accurate and not offensive. We are, in the first place, working with someone else’s favourite brand but, in the second place, we stand to influence slightly the way in which they see the world. We are neither politicians nor world leaders but we owe it to the people who support our brands to understand their lives and their causes.
I’m certain that Pepsi didn’t set out to create an offensive commercial. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it prioritised internal policies and procedures above consumers to create a commercial that is right by the numbers but offensive in reality. Yes, rioters standing face to face with rioters have the potential to be iconic. Martin Luther King was photographed in his altercations with police, linking this back to African American struggles of the past. More recently, however, Leisha Evans was captured on film, creating the contrasting image of a solitary woman against an armed police force. While some might argue the active force involved, it is difficult to deny the symbolism.
The horror of the Pepsi ad then becomes conflating the now-dated symbolism of ’70s activism (peace signs and artists) with a somewhat irrelevant icon of pop culture (Kendall Jenner), giving it a purpose by looking at the most-real and -pressing issues in local culture (social and economic inclusion of citizens) and then holding an implausible product up as the solution. Stripping away the looted symbols, we really end up with a commercial that says “cheer up, protesters, and have a Pepsi”.
We can do better
I can’t think of an era where this sort of advertising worked. But I do know that, in a modern age, with the current understanding of what brands can really do and with the existing social problems we face, a heavy-hitter such as Pepsi can do better than just offering us a drink.
DK Badenhorst (@BrandCultureSA) is head of strategy at Cape Town ad agency, 140BBDO, and brings cultural context and long-term trend insights to brand communication through cultural insight and semiotics. He contributes the monthly “Brand Culture” column, exploring the value and meaning interaction between brands and society, to MarkLives.com.