Brands can learn from Pepsi's messed up million dollar campaign how NOT to handle social issues in advertisements

9th Apr 2017
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Millions of dollars were pumped into the Pepsi ad campaign after months of brainstorming by copywriters and creative brains working for the global cola giant, but in the end, it was a washout with the brand forced to apologise for it

The internet is a place where various, highly conflicting opinions are commonplace and every little thing can trigger an argument. However, soft drink giant Pepsi has achieved the unthinkable. Their latest ad featuring reality star Kendall Jenner has been universally panned and has united the internet in thoroughly denouncing it. The commercial which seems 'inspired' by the Black Lives Matter movement, trivialises the movement that was born out of anger, following the death of several black youths at the hands of American police.

pepsi ad
Contrasting images of a real protester being dragged away by heavily armed police with Kendell Jenner giving a Pepsi to the police officer in the commercial

While it is understandable that brands prefer to move beyond offering a mere product or service and would prefer to be associated with a loftier ideology, it requires a tricky balance of sensitivity and commercial appeal.

In India, we have had Bajaj successfully holding on to its reliable Indianness against trendier but un-Indian outsiders with their buland Bharat ki buland tasveer. A more recent example would be the heart-tugging Vicks ad which successfully tied the brand with a mother’s unconditional love, while also batting for transgender rights.

vicks ad
The Vicks advert that was highly appreciated for its sensitive portrayal of a transgender mother

The Pepsi advert was the complete opposite to these sensitively created commercials. With five times more dislikes than likes, the advert has notched up 93,000 dislikes on YouTube. The advertisement depicts people taking to the streets for a protest similar to the Black Lives Matter protests that had American minorities rising up against police brutality. Jenner hands over a Pepsi can to a police officer and the crowd cheers seemingly ending the hostility between the cops and the coloured folks.

Several unarmed black men and women have been injured and killed by armed police officers over the last few years in an increasingly trigger-happy USA. As usual, Twitter was abuzz with memes and stunning 140 character denouncements of the poorly crafted ad.

Brands can and should take up social issues but it should be handled with care or it can immensely hurt the brand. Pepsi has since taken down the advertisement, that cost the brand millions of dollars and several months of work, and has also issued an apology.

Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologise for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.

Pepsi's in-house creative team, the Creators League Studio, created the advert. Mike Middleton, Head of Creative at Dentsu Mobius Media, told The Hollywood Reporter that a lot of the issues surrounding this ad likely stemmed from the use of an in-house creative team. "Clients are often keen to try and cut out agencies because we're 'more expensive.' But agencies are paid to give wise counsel, and this sort of thing would have been flagged," said Middleton.


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