More PR Problems for Pepsi: When Ads Turn into Issues

The world has plenty of bad advertising – yelling car salesmen, EVERY pharmaceutical commercial – that’s mostly benign and forgettable. The new Pepsi commercial with Kendall Jenner is not one of those harmless flops.

If you haven’t seen it – because Pepsi quickly pulled the ad and apologized – let’s break it down (or watch if you can endure):

A bunch of people are “protesting.” That is, if protesting looks like pregaming for a college football game. … Enter Kendall Jenner, superficial hero of the masses and apparent defender of social justice. Following several dramatic shots of her posing, she joins the “protest,” walks directly up to a cop and gives him a Pepsi. … And bam — just like that – all social injustices are resolved.

Mass rejoicing ensues on par with Ice Man and Maverick’s post-dogfight reconciliation in Top Gun. Instantly you have the neatly packaged solution to some of our nation’s longest-standing issues.

Oh, wait, no you don’t. Instead, Pepsi has a public relations nightmare to manage. (Building their list of PR problems to solve – this winter it was fake news causing boycotts.)

As quickly as Kendall solved all our problems, Twitter erupted, with people peppering the brand with well-deserved and harsh critiques. They rightly accused Pepsi of exploiting social-justice movements and political issues for the sake of soda sales.

“Hold my wig, Keisha. I’ve got some liberating to do!” “Um, it’s Jennifer.”— Tax-free Hands. (@thewayoftheid) April 4, 2017

As of Wednesday morning, “Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi” had garnered 41,000 tweets. I’d say, and remember I’m bad at math, that at least 41,000 of those are negative.

The tweets quickly became mainstream media stories, with everyone from USA Today to Time writing about it. One tweet describes the commercial as the best ad Coke has ever produced. Yikes. You get the point.

What was Pepsi thinking?

As told to Teen Vogue, the Kendall conundrum is part of the company’s “Moments” campaign, meant to highlight “when we decide to let go, choose to act, follow our passion …”

OK. That’s the official pre-crisis statement and in their post-crisis comments they admitted they “missed the mark,” certainly the right decision. While we may not get a deeper dive into this debacle from the company, let’s hypothesize.

I can picture it now, a bunch of ad content folks sitting around and thinking about how they can connect with those gosh-darned millennials who are so hard to reach.

“What do they care about?” Content person No. 1 asks. “Well, they like causes.”

Content person No. 2: “Good point! Soda may cause obesity but it cures social ills. It’s time for Pepsi to join the protest.”

In my hypothetical little scenario, a PR pro wasn’t part of the conversation, ready to put a stop to this. If they were part of the planning – then they are likely of the “I don’t care what you say about me, just spell my name right” variety.

Of course, I wasn’t there and I don’t know how the conversations went down but here’s the thing: Too many brands think they can simply insert themselves into the conversation, say a couple “serious things about serious issues” and people will flock to their product.

That mentality couldn’t be further from the truth. Standing with a cause, or fighting for something that matters means doing more than making commercials and content.

Why it went horribly wrong

For starters: Neither Pepsi nor Jenner have much – if any – of a track record standing up for social issues such as the ones portrayed in the commercial.

According to the PepsiCo Foundation, they support programs that:

  • encourage healthy lifestyles.
  • improve availability of affordable nutrition.
  • expand access to clean water.
  • enhance sustainable agriculture capability.
  • enable job readiness.
  • empower women and girls.

Hmmm, those are interesting in their own right, but at least it’s a food company doing mostly food things. Address things like childhood obesity, hunger and leave social movements to those in the trenches if the only support given comes in the form of an idealistic commercial. Otherwise, people will cut through the bull with 120-character long blades.

Then there’s the execution. With the standard dramatic music and flashy hero shots, they try to position a reality TV star as some sort of Soda Savior. C’mon, Pepsi, have you even watched The Kardashians?

How to avoid the same mistake

To begin with, don’t take sugar water and add pop-culture icons when jumping into social issues. That alone should solve at least one of your PR problems.

But, if your brand is going to take a stance start with two simple strategies:

Stick to what you know. Pepsi should tackle world hunger, not racial disparities. Do the same. Align your outward messaging and actions with your values – not just what you think people want to hear.

Take action. People are too savvy and too skeptical to think brands live what they say. They need to see proof. Starbucks is the poster child, but for good reason. CEO Howard Shultz doesn’t shy away from addressing issues Starbucks has consistently addressed for years.

Oh, and to bring your PR team into the discussions at the onset. They should have no problem calling out a crisis before it happens.





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