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.
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.”