Pepsi Hijacked a Movement to Sell a Product

Dana Sheehan/ Branding, Digital Marketing, Marketing, Social Media

Oh, Pepsi. What did you do? Why did you do it? This is the type of marketing that ruins marketing for the rest of us. I hate this kind of marketing – the hijacking of a movement for the sake of making a few bucks. This type of marketing puts profits over people, and this ad in particular made that fact even worse by using today’s hot-button topics to sell a soft drink – a soft drink – in an ad that didn’t even address anything, just took several serious matters and threw so much pixie dust on them they were barely recognizable.

Friends, this blog post addresses political topics that people feel very strongly about. It’s important to discuss this because a big company is using controversial topics to sell stuff. This issue goes to the very heart of marketing ethics, and it’s something I feel very strongly about. Buckle up, it’s about to get bumpy.

First, if you haven’t seen the ad, take a few minutes to watch it:

I get it, Pepsi tried to be current, edgy, and provocative, to create something that was moving. They missed the mark by a mile. Here’s the problem – the ad was about Pepsi. If they really wanted the ad to be about the reason people are protesting, it should have been about the reason people are protesting. Instead of promoting peace or unity, it promoted a soft drink – and Kendall Jenner, if we’re being honest. Pepsi saw something that people were passionate about, and tried to make it about their brand. It was insincere and made light of a issues that are very serious to many people. They literally commercialized people’s real-life struggles, in the most ironic way possible.

I’ve watched the commercial a few times. I really think they were so impressed with themselves for featuring a man of color and a Muslim woman in a hijab. In marketing we try to be inclusive, to be sure our images aren’t too… anything. Can’t be too white, too Asian, too female, too male, etc. This is something I’ve done time and again. I believe inclusiveness is important and that ads should reflect real people, but it was like they checked off all of the “diversity” boxes:

  • brown person – check
  • black person – check
  • Muslim person – check
  • woman – check
  • Muslim woman in a hijab – bonus points!
  • controversial topics – check
  • people looking empowered – check
  • hot celebrity – check

The worst part (if there is a single worst part) is that they watered down the protests so much that it looked like a 1960s theme night, which glossed over the very real fight for civil rights that occurred during that time. They made the protest look like a party, not like a group of people who are angry at the way they are being treated. In an ironic twist, they made such great strides to prevent offending anyone by only showing signs with peace signs and hearts and words like “love” and “peace” that they missed the entire point of their own commercial! If a controversial issue is important enough to you to put your brand behind it, commit and be prepared for the fallout. Don’t half-ass it and expect people to stand up and cheer for your courageousness.

The ending where they implied police brutality was shameful. Having a police officer drink a Pepsi and then what, decide NOT to beat the crap out of a protester (is that the message?). This treatment of a very serious issue is wrong on so many levels. It gives a sly wink to the people who have been abused by corrupt officers and insults the entire profession of police enforcement. It’s almost impressive how many people Pepsi was able to take jabs at in such a cavalier manner.

There are many good officers who put their lives on the line everyday to protect us. In this ad, Pepsi implies that a can of soda is all it takes for police to gain a conscience, as though all officers are crooked and unable to prevent themselves from using unnecessary force without the help of a friendly reminder that there’s a better way. The cop literally raises an eyebrow to another officer after drinking the Pepsi, as though he’s saying, “Hey, I guess these people are OK after all.” You know, since they’re “cool” enough to drink “the right soda.”

The self-congratulatory celebrating that occurs after the offer tastes a drink is how I image the folks at Pepsi reacted after watching this ad for the first time. I’m sure there were high fives, fist-bumps, and back slaps galore as they imagined the buzz they were going to get after it aired. It’s not like they didn’t know there would be controversy, but I bet the controversy they expected was a hearty debate over their audacity to feature a Muslim woman wearing a hijab, the merits of protesting, and their stand against police brutality. I’m sure they already had a response written that doubles-down on their stance and declares they are proud to feature a diverse group of people who truly reflect the fabric of our country.

This is not what good marketing is about. If Pepsi really, truly wanted to do something good and to support the people who are protesting, there are so many ways they could have done that. They could have donated money to an organization that’s helping others. They could have given their employees a paid day off to volunteer or protest or whatever they chose to do to make a positive difference. Then, if this was truly an act of goodness and not a publicity stunt, they shouldn’t have done anything afterwards to promote themselves. No press release, no feel-good video about the great job they did. Pepsi should have simply let the act speak for itself. And you know what would have happened? Their employees and the organizations would have told the story for them. They would have genuinely, truly thanked Pepsi for actually making a difference – for taking the money they could have spent on a ridiculous ad (ahem, see above) to create real results that help real people. Or maybe not, maybe no one ever finds out. And that’s OK, because the act should have been more important than the mentions on social media and the video views.

This is a struggle we face in our marketing. I acknowledge it. We have jobs to do, and that’s to get our message out there in front of people. However, I will always be a proponent of doing so responsibly and ethically. Responsible marketing starts with each of us. The type of marketing Pepsi just pulled isn’t OK with me, and I hope it isn’t OK with you either.