Pepsi’s Social Media Fail:
Social media marketing is an extremely effective tool in promoting a brand’s social recognition and loyalty, while also being cost effective in comparison to traditional advertising routes (DeMers, 2014). However, large corporations often face criticism over their social media campaigns that don’t quite hit the mark with global audiences.
An example of a corporation’s social media fail is PepsiCo’s advertisement that was released on April 3rd, 2017. The advert titled ‘Live for Now, Moments Anthem’ featured Kendall Jenner and began by displaying a crowd of protesters walking the streets holding makeshift signs about peace and love. Kendall, who was in the midst of a photo shoot was coaxed out into the crowd of protesters. At the end of the ad, the crowd came face to face with a wall of police officers. Kendall stepped away from the crowd and offered a can of Pepsi to one of the officers which leads to the protesters enthusiastically embracing which concluded the ad with the slogan ‘Live Bolder, Live Louder, Live for Now’ branded across the screen.
The advert faced extreme backlash from viewers on Twitter and Facebook following its release with comparisons being made to Black Lives Matter protests that occurred in the past and are still occurring now. Critics have claimed the advert was “a failed attempt to appropriate social justice movements in service of selling soft drinks” (Sydney Morning Herald, 2017). The advert depicts an unrealistic scenario of a protest that in real life would have ended very differently if someone had approached an officer in such a way.
What contributed to the fail?
The day after the advertisement was released, Pepsi pulled it and apologised for making light of a serious social issue. Indra Nooyi, PepsiCo’s CEO stated after the release “This has pained me a lot because this company is known for diversity, and the fact that everybody who produced the commercial and approved the commercial did not link it to Black Lives Matter made me scratch my head” (Taylor, 2017). She further went on to say “I’ve thought about it a lot because I looked at the ad again and again and again trying to figure out what went wrong — because it was a peace march not a protest march, It was people in happiness coming together” (Taylor, 2017). However, no matter what was said in the apology’s, the damage had been done. The advert went viral and spread like wildfire and became centre to many memes.
Pepsi’s marketing and advertising team would definitely have been scratching their heads after the backlash. How did they miss such obvious parallels between Kendall Jenner approaching the officers and Ieshia Evans when she was approached by police at a protest about police brutality in Baton Rouge, Louisiana?
Elle Hearns, the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and a previous organiser for Black Lives Matter had a lot to say about Ieshia’s situation and the Pepsi ad. “It has no relationship to the courage that that woman showed. That woman standing in the middle of the street was not trying to be a peacemaker with the police. She was being defiant. She was actually resisting” (Victor, 2017). She also stated that no one finds joy from Pepsi at a protest which shows how badly Pepsi missed the mark with this advert.
The advert also links to the ‘flower power’ movement which was a means of protest against the Vietnam War which involved protesters putting flowers in the barrels of police rifles to symbolise peace (Solon, 2017). Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. posted a tweet stating ‘If only daddy would have known the power of Pepsi’ with a photo of her father standing face to face with police. Clearly, Pepsi made light of a situation that would bring pain to many American and International citizens.
Evidently, the advertisement was a huge social media fail with poor acting and an unrealistic story line. The biggest fail of the ad was the casting of Kendall Jenner, a Caucasian reality star turned model with a net worth of $30 million and an Instagram following of 111 million (Friedman, 2019). Understandably, the content creation team was looking for a high-profile influencer to star in their advert similarly to how they used Cindy Crawford in their 1992 commercial. For a more successful campaign, finding a ‘hero’ whose morals aligned with the Black Lives Matter campaign would have worked better for Pepsi’s cause.
Another aspect that contributed to the fail was the scene at the beginning of the ad where Jenner whips her wig off at her photoshoot and without looking, she chucks it at her African American assistant and waltzes off to the protest. Some would consider this white privilege in action.
Everyone knows that Pepsi couldn’t realistically solve world peace or end a protest, the concept is completely unfeasible which contributed to the fail and turned that part of the ad into a viral joke. A real-life protester posted a photo on Twitter of his son handing an officer a bottle of water as a gesture of goodwill and the officer ignored him. This proves how unrealistic this advert really is.
Pepsi’s in-house content creation team failed to sensitively portray a topical situation which caused their social media fail and subsequent backlash and criticism.
Avoiding fails in the future:
PepsiCo recently changed from outsourcing their marketing and advertising teams and have made the switch to an in-house content creation team. This shows that Pepsi could have avoided the social media fail if they had had outsider opinions. Companies that have in-house teams often get blinded by their job of furthering the brand that they don’t see when they’ve created something poorly, they often lack inspiration. Hence, to avoid the flop, PepsiCo should have organised focus groups and surveys to ensure they were aligned with the brand and they would understand the public’s opinion on the campaign and could have avoided negative backlash from the start.
Due to the instant negativity the ad received, there was no room for positive spreadability. All that audiences saw was the viral memes that poked fun at the ad. Through the public sphere, Pepsi should have taken note of how audiences responded and then produced an advert the following year with these points in mind. However, the fact that PepsiCo so quickly turned around to apologise, shows how highly regarded audience opinions are and solidifies the concept that we all co-exist in a ‘mediapolis’ (Jansson, 2016).
In the future, PepsiCo needs to set in place a new social media strategy to avoid ‘fails’ like this again. A more prominent focus needs to be put on conducting research before posting any adverts to social media. They also need to put more time into seeking outsider opinions since outsider advertising and marketing teams definitely would have seen the parallels between the Kendall Jenner and Ieshia Evans. Through proper research, Pepsi would have realised how insensitive they were being through creating an advert that made light of the devastating Black Lives Matter protests across America.
Evidently, PepsiCo’s advertisement was a fail due to limited research conducted prior to creating the failed commercial. Pepsi and even Kendall Jenner apologised profusely for the insensitivity, however, the damage had been done. If they had outsourced advertising and marketing professional, they would not have produced such a lacklustre advertisement that had the potential to be great but starred a influencer who was used for her popularity, not her moral ties to the Black Lives Matter cause. If Pepsi had worked on a better social media strategy, their commercial would not have been such a social media fail.
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Solon, O. (2017, April 5). Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad criticized for co-opting protest movements for profit. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2017/apr/04/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad-protest-black-lives-matter
Sydney Morning Herald. (2017, April 6). Pepsi pulls Kendall Jenner protest advertisement after mockery and backlash. Retrieved from Sydney Morning Herald: https://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/pepsi-pulls-kendall-jenner-protest-advertisement-after-mockery-and-backlash-20170406-gvenhi.html
Taylor, K. (2017, September 22). Pepsi CEO defends Kendall Jenner ‘Black Lives Matter’ ad that outraged many: ‘It was a peace march’. Retrieved from Business Insider Australia: https://www.businessinsider.com.au/pepsi-ceo-defends-kendall-jenner-ad-2017-9?r=US&IR=T
Victor, D. (2017, April 5). Pepsi Pulls Ad Accused of Trivializing Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html