Marketing Nightmares: Pepsi Plays with Fire
I’m sure you’ve heard of Kendall Jenner. With over 130 million followers on Instagram, she is a well-known model and media personality. Born in 1995, she rose to fame in the reality tv show ‘Keeping Up with the Kardashians’, which also featured her famous family.
I’m sure you’ve also consumed Pepsi before. Originally created way back in the 1890s, Pepsi is a carbonated drink. That’s over a century of sales and marketing experience. Widely considered to be a longtime rival of Coca-Cola, this is what their market share in the US looks like.
Pepsi Co: 30.8%
Coca-Cola leads the way in the US, with Pepsi not far behind. But in other parts of the world, Pepsi outsells its rival such as in Oman, India, Dominican Republic, and Guatemala. As you can see, these two are the leading brands in the carbonated drinks industry.
For these huge brands, celebrity advertisements are not unheard of. Over the years, Pepsi has shot commercials starring Britney Spears, Pink, Beyoncé, and Enrique Iglesias. All of them are household names.
Leveraging on Jenner’s star power, Pepsi decided to team up with her in its 2017 commercial. This is a classic example of celebrity branding, which is the use of a famous person to generate buzz around a brand. Having a celebrity as the subject of your advertisement can be a powerful marketing tool. And Pepsi did just that.
For 3 years from 2001-2004, Spears’ collaboration with Pepsi was perfection. On the other hand, Jenner’s experience was short-lived proving to be quite different. In April 2017, Pepsi aired a 2-minute commercial, which led to controversy. It was a major misstep and execs at Pepsi ended up pulling the ad.
“Live for Now” also known as “Live for Now Moments Anthem” was the title of the commercial that was pulled one day after it debuted. It received so much criticism on social media and media outlets. To make matters worse, many also used it to entertain their audiences.
According to Wikipedia’s description, the ad kicks off with a hand opening a can of Pepsi and then shows a young man playing the cello on a rooftop. The music soundtrack begins and the view switches to a protest with people showing gestures of peace and carrying signs that read “Join the Conversation” and peace symbols.
The view then switches to a young woman, who appears to be a professional photographer going through her print photographs. Then the view switches to Jenner’s character, who is in the middle of a photoshoot. As she models, she becomes aware of the protesters outside. The cellist also notices the protest and then takes a sip of Pepsi while watching the protesters from a balcony.
The view then switches to the photographer. She also notices the protest outside. She grabs her camera and heads towards the protesters. The cellist then gestures to Jenner to join them and she responds by removing her blond wig. She hands the wig to her assistant and walks toward the marchers.
The camera then focuses on police officers who are monitoring the protest. Jenner walks up to the officers and hands a can of Pepsi to one of them. As she does this, the photographer snaps a few shots of this interaction. The police officer drinks from the can and you can hear the crowd cheering. The photographer puts aside her camera and hugs a protester. The commercial ends displaying the phrases “Live Bolder”, “Live Louder”, and “Live for Now”.
See the full ad here:
The problem was that the ad resembled the protests in the Black Lives Matter movement. The shot of Jenner walking up to the officers was almost identical to Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge. Comparisons were made to the July 2016 event when a woman named Iesha Evans approached police on her own and was subsequently arrested. The memories of these events were still fresh and real.
Many condemned Pepsi for not being sensitive to this issue. And whenever well-known companies make a mistake in the eyes of the public, they get punished for it.
Here’s what Twitter users had to say:
Not only was it the center of attention on Twitter, but the advertisement was also the subject of a YouTube parody video. Comedian Vito Gesualdi took advantage of the opportunity by attending an anti-Trump protest in Berkeley, California. He recorded himself walking through a group of violent protesters where he tried offering them a can of Pepsi. In the commercial, as Jenner hands the can to an officer, the crowd of protesters respond with cheers and everything calms down. But in real life, as Gesualdi was trying to do this, it didn’t work. The protesters ignored him and remained hostile.
His video went viral. Titled ‘Berkeley Protesters Take the Pepsi Challenge’, the video has close to 4 million views to date. You can watch it below here:
Pepsi had been ridiculed on Twitter and YouTube. But things didn’t stop there. What was even worse was Saturday Night Live also referred to the commercial in one of their sketches. In the sketch, Beck Bennet plays the guy behind the vision of the protest ad. As he’s on the phone, he tries to explain this brilliant storyline he came up with. He’s heard saying:
“Okay, so, well it’s an homage to the resistance. There’s this huge protest in the street, reminiscent of Black Lives Matter. So everybody’s marching, right, and they get to these police officers and you think it’s going to go bad because there’s a standoff, and then Kendall Jenner walks in and walks up to one of the police officers and she hands him a Pepsi. And that Pepsi brings everyone together. Isn’t that like the best ad ever?”
Then Jenner’s character, played by Cecily Strong, enters the scene. She’s also on the phone with one of her famous sisters going over her latest gig.
“I stop police from shooting black people by giving them a Pepsi,” she says. “I know, it’s cute, right?”
When a company as big as Pepsi makes a mistake of this magnitude, it is forced to act quickly. A spokesman for the soft drinks company originally said: “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.”
But trying to justify its actions didn’t work. One day after the whole ordeal, the commercial was taken down and Pepsi released a public apology through a press statement.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
Then in October 2017, a few months after the commercial aired, Kendall Jenner finally addressed the issue. No one knows why she remained silent or what took her this long to finally speak up. In the Season 14 premiere of Keeping up with the Kardashians, she broke out in tears and showed remorse for her participation in the campaign.
In the confessional interview, she’s seen talking about how excited she was when she got the gig.
“When I first got this offer… I mean, it’s a huge company. The people I was following were so iconic and amazing,” Kendall said. “Michael Jackson has done it, Britney Spears has done it, Beyoncé has done it, Pink. The list goes on. So to get something like that was just… It was so exciting.”
She continues the interview trying to explain that she made these work decisions together with her team and that she trusted everyone.
“After I saw the reaction and I read what people had to say about it, I most definitely saw what went wrong. I was so stuck, and I really didn’t know what to do, and I completely shut down.”
What can we learn from this epic fail?
With real protests dominating headlines, the Pepsi ad was tasteless. After facing so much criticism, the cola brand had to halt its commercial and apologize to the public. Here’s what we can learn from Pepsi’s epic fail.
- Be selective with trending topics
Trending topics help to garner attention. However, do not choose sensitive ones. Stay away from shooting an ad related to diseases or in this case, protests.
- Make an impact by investing in corporate social responsibility projects
If your company wants to genuinely make an impact and generate publicity, don’t do it through a commercial. Instead, opt for CSR activities such as starting a good cause or making a donation. Through CSR, you can convey your intentions and positive messages.
- Take responsibility for your mistakes
To be fair on Pepsi, they did act quickly after facing a lot of criticism. Pepsi made an official apology to the public and to Kendall Jenner through a press statement and several social media accounts. They realized their mistake and made the effort to soften the blow, although damage was already done.
- Don’t play with politics
If you’re in charge of company branding, do not ever play with politics. Controversy does sell, but in this case, it will just lead to a negative perception of your company and a lot of hassle trying to fix it.
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