Commentary

Aspartaming History: Pepsi, The 'Un-Woke' Cola

To paraphrase sometime-casino owner Rick in “Casablanca,” “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of one little Pepsi commercial don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Or do they?

At this very peculiar critical juncture in our political history, we’re all feeling shaky over truly earth-shattering events.

Still, trying to get in tune with the times, advertising is becoming increasingly politicized. Like political talk, it’s unavoidable.

And I can’t get over that one shot from “Jump In,” the now-infamous two-and-a-half minute spot that Pepsi pulled before it ever reached TV and after living less than 24 hours on the Internet.

The shot showed model/Instagram star/sudden political activist Kendall Jenner getting “woke.” (Cola-woke?) It was not pretty. She leaves a fashion shoot, fiercely pulling off her blonde wig, and without making eye contact, throws it at her (black) stylist. She then uses her fist to wipe off her bright red lipstick, like a drunk woman on a bender, and heads to the barricades, arrayed in her handy protest-wear: cute sunnies and chic denim separates.

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It’s there that the real magic happens, for which brave Jenner seems to summon up every ounce of the Joan-of-Arc ardor inside her. Surrounded by hundreds of attractive young protestors, one of whom carries his cello on his back, another echoing the struggle with his sign, "Join the Conversation," she approaches a hunky young (riot) police officer and hands him a cold can of Pepsi.

And all of Modeltown celebrates. The cheekboned Peaceniks break out in cheers.

I’m certainly not the first to call the spot tone-deaf, trivializing and clueless.

It’s trying to leverage all the recent political marches, but the most horrifying part seems to refer most directly to an image captured in a Black Lives Matter protest that has become iconic. The image , taken by Jonathan Bachman for Reuters, depicts protester Ieshia Evans calmly facing down a lineup of police in full riot gear. No one was celebrating over cold beverages at the time, as she was being arrested.

The Internet reaction to the Pepsi spot was immediate and eviscerating. “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi,” tweeted Martin Luther King’s daughter, Beatrice A. King, under a black-and-white photo of her famous father being manhandled by police.

Whatever muddled thinking went into it, the idea of substituting a vapid social-media star like Jenner into that picture, in the hopes of the commercial going viral, is really unimaginable.

It seemed to come as a shock to the people at Pepsi, but they did make a solid move in coming out with an apology, part of which said: “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.”

Apologizing to Jenner (and apparently, her 68 million Instagram followers), seems a bit much. She’s a young woman who gets up to $300,000 for a tweet. Pepsi seemed desperate, groveling for social-media cred, (like the corporate version of “Death in Venice”) for hiring her in the first place, and putting her in this giant old-school production.

With that kind of following to leverage, Jenner certainly could have suggested the spot was wrong-headed and would disappoint her fans. After the pull, she put out word she was “devastated,” but apparently not enough to give part of her multimillion-dollar payment to a political charity of her choice.

(My son, the Millennial, suggested: “Now that Pepsi has done this, it's time for Coke to pull a Lyft to Pepsi's Uber and become the official soft drink of Planned Parenthood.”)

The entire Pepsi debacle — especially the part about the spot coming from the company’s in-house agency, Creators League Studio — seemed to inspire mountains of schadenfreude in agency-land. Part of the piling on was because creatives felt validated by this failure, noting the spot needed the grown-up hand of an experienced agency creative director.

Agency folk are also pissed because the spot is the work of Brad Jakeman, president of PepsiCo's global beverage group.

He gave a blistering speech at the ANA two years ago indicting agencies for their backward ways. Jakeman also ripped the industry's lack of diversity. "I am sick and tired as a client of sitting in agency meetings with a whole bunch of white straight males talking to me about how we are going to sell our brands that are bought 85% by women," he famously said. "Innovation and disruption does not come from homogeneous groups of people."

Oddly, this work is guilty of all he decried, and then some. It seems to be the result of minds occupying an airless, super-filtered corporate thought bubble.

But something else that Jakeman said during that particular speech takes on new meaning in the wake of the “Jump In” disaster.

When asked to praise a particular brand for its resonance in contemporary culture, he used the example set by Caitlyn Jenner. (Kendall’s parent, who, before she transitioned, was sports star Bruce Jenner.) He praised the way she "managed her transition … figuratively and literally as a brand." The process -- from the Diane Sawyer interview to the Vanity Fair cover -- was ”thought-provoking, authentic and profound,” he said. "This was something the world was talking about, and the world has continued to talk about."

Then he asked a question of the ad people and fellow marketers in the audience: "Have we done anything with our brands that is in any way as remarkable as the way Caitlin Jenner, and that phenomenon, has been managed?"

I’d say the answer is a resoundingly loud, tone-deaf “no.”

15 comments about "Aspartaming History: Pepsi, The 'Un-Woke' Cola ".
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  1. Paul Collins from DigitalFish Inc., April 7, 2017 at 3:40 p.m.

    Thanks for this report, Barbara, nice industry context.

    Since this is the madblog, let's imagine a Pepsi agency exec rewatching the end of Mad Men on Netflix and drawing a very wrong conclusion, with this as the result. 

    There might be something to be learned comparing I'd Like to Buy the World A Coke and this thing. Not that the Coke ad was above criticism, as I recall being covered here.

  2. Nancy Levine from Self, April 7, 2017 at 4:03 p.m.

    Insightful as always, Barbara. I'm glad at least Pepsi had the good sense to pull the ad and apologize. They were tone-deaf for sure, but at least changed their tune; more than we can say for lots of companies nowadays.

  3. Joe DePreta from Launchpad, April 7, 2017 at 5:06 p.m.

    Great piece Barbara. I particularly like part of the formal Pepsi apology, "Clearly, we missed the mark . .  . " It immediately brought me back to a 7-UP musical radio commercial that ran around Woodstock and attempted to harness "hippy" culture. Part of the lyric went: "It's what we miss that hits the mark. It's what's left out that leaves us in, it's the light shining over the dark. And in these times of overcomplication there's UN, shine UN. UN for all, all for UN, 7-UP. The UNcola." To me, those lyrics oddly apply to the Pepsi disaster in question, only in a more informed and relevant way.

  4. Brenda Garrand from Garrand, April 7, 2017 at 5:34 p.m.

    In this case it appears Avis has tried a little too hard.

  5. Dean Fox from ScreenTwo LLC, April 7, 2017 at 8:05 p.m.

    Great piece, Barbara, but I'm really surprised at you. Caitlin Jenner is not and never will be Kendall's mother.  Kendall is the product of Bruce Jenner's sperm and that makes Bruce/Caitlin her father.  It was her mother who produced the egg that Bruce's sperm fertilized and gave birth to her.  That makes Kris Jenner her mother, and her only mother.

  6. Barbara Lippert from mediapost.com, April 7, 2017 at 8:09 p.m.

    thanks, Dean. I realize it's a very non-P.C. mistake, and it will be fixed. Caitlyn is her "parent" and I will leave it at that. I don't have to mention her former life. 

  7. Kelly Flint from Strike!, April 7, 2017 at 8:18 p.m.

    So grateful for you. You always nail it. 

  8. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, April 7, 2017 at 9:31 p.m.

    Feel so sorry for those poor Syrian babies, but we don't want them either. (paroday people)

  9. Deirdre Hanssen from The Promo Zone, April 7, 2017 at 9:50 p.m.

    Excellent analysis Barbara and your son's suggestion is worthwhile. Re Dean Fox' comment about Caitlin Jenner, she will always be the parent of Kendall and the rest of them, but surely she abdicated the title of father when she transgendered.

  10. Dyann Espinosa from IntraStasis, April 8, 2017 at 7 a.m.

    IMHO: Any time one generation tries to emulate another generation, it is bound to ring false. And every time a movement/subculture/lifestyle gets co-opted by mainstream media, you can bet it has long lost its cool. So, regardless of in-house or not, the concept and execution would probably be somewhat the same for the Pepsi ad. Hopefully, if clearer eyes would have looked at it they might have rejected the "Hey kids, let's get laid at the protest!" theme, combined with the haughty model tossing her blonde wig at the (black) makeup person and stomping off to flirt with the cops. 
    I think what Barbara has captured is not only how offensive this spot was to the public, but also how it lit up the agency exec's and compelled the creative cadre to realize that they need to come up with authentic ideas that enhance the client's communication with its consumers.

  11. Mark DiMassimo from DiMassimo Goldstein, April 9, 2017 at 2:13 a.m.

    Well done, Barbara. 

  12. Bill Bergman from Bergman Group, April 10, 2017 at 9:50 a.m.

    Terrific article, Barbara. What has happened to Pepsi? They once defined hip. Now they define confused and lost somewhere in the late 80s.

  13. Neilan Tyree from The Propeller Group, April 11, 2017 at 1:52 p.m.

    First off? LOVE the part about Pepsi. I'd forgotten about that blistering speech at the ANA (new biz types like me aren't on their invite list) so that was really great to be reminded of.

    As for the Carl's Jr. spot? I thought the production and entertainment values were...terrific.

    What bugged ME was that I kept thinking it's just a more elaborate version of the future-changing pot "Jack's Back" for Jack in the Box in which the long abandoned clown returned to the company and blew up the restaurant chain's board of directors. Literally. One of Chiat/Day's best. And it literally changed the fortunes of the company and brand... 

    But I was glad to read your take on that, too, so as to consider my take on it all. Another excellent column. (Unsurprisingly.)

  14. Jim English from The Met Museum, April 11, 2017 at 7:18 p.m.

    As Monsieur Rick might say, "Of all the social media joints in all all the Internet sites in all the world ... but,what's really the big deal?" 

    The First Amendment under fire from right and left.

  15. Kenny Kurtz from creative license, April 23, 2017 at 2:11 p.m.

    Been around media for a long time, and I don’t understand why Barbara would characterize a spot that every human being on the planet has now seen, and that everybody has been talking about for weeks (without having to invest in a media buy) as a “debacle” (defined as a “catastrophe, disaster, ruin”). I’m not sure either why she calls the spot “tone-deaf” (in what parallel universe is empathy for the hard-working, underpaid, “put their lives on the line every day for us” law enforcement community considered wrong?). Let’s face it, it’s really easy to “pull a spot” that everybody on planet earth has already seen, and is already talking about (and, by the way, that anybody can pull up in a millisecond on the Internet). Pulled? Sounds more to me like the left is attempting to pull people’s legs. As for that spot “trivializing” the “BLM” movement… “BLM” is doing a fine job of that all by itself. Let’s face it, the whole “hands up, don’t shoot” narrative revolving around the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson back in August 2014, and which served as flashpoint for BLM, has been entirely debunked. It was false, totally bogus. Facts are, Brown committed six crimes that day in a very short period of time, the last of which (attempting to relieve young police officer Darren Wilson of his government issued gun) got him shot, and killed. Had Brown been white, yellow, brown, purple, or rainbow… he would have wound up just as dead for such a bumble-headed final crime regardless. For BLM to cease, and desist with their very own self-trivialization, the African-American community in this country will do well to stop gunning each other down, and BLM will do well to REALLY FOCUS on that unfortunate proclivity toward violent crime among their own. Blacks are 13% of America’s population, yet commit over 50% of all America’s murders. Add in other violent crimes like assault, rape, armed robberies and burglaries, arson, carjackings, and attempted murder… and 13% of our population is committing over 80% of ALL VIOLENT CRIME in America. These are real Department of Justice numbers, and if you watch the news (and have even a minimal level of intellectual honesty), you’re aware that those numbers are on the rise, as opposed to decreasing. It’s tone-deaf to provide a cold drink to the law enforcement community that bears the brunt of this? There are a few bad apples in every universe… stop throwing the baby out with the bath water.

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