What was Pepsi trying to achieve with its 'tone deaf' Kendall Jenner ad?

For a big business, putting out a controversial ad can be a bit like teetering across a tightrope. And that means Pepsi just took a tumble.

'Attention is the oxygen for every brand ... this is big time attention,' says ad industry vet Terry O'Reilly

Soft drink giant pulls ad that was widely mocked and criticized for appearing to trivialize social justice protests 2:38

For a big business, putting out a controversial ad can be a bit like teetering across a tightrope. And that means Pepsi just took a tumble.

On Wednesday, the soft drink titan pulled one of its ads featuring model Kendall Jenner as a protester who hands a can of Pepsi to a police officer facing a crowd of demonstrators.

The ad drew sharp criticism online, where it was accused of trivializing and mimicking imagery from recent protests for social justice causes — particularly last July's protest against police brutality in Baton Rouge, La. It was online for about 24 hours.

Terry O'Reilly, ad industry veteran and host of CBC Radio's Under the Influence, thought the ad was "tone deaf" and out of character for Pepsi; traditionally, the company's ads haven't waded into world issues.

"Coke is the one that usually takes this territory," he said, bringing up the famed I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing hilltop ad from the 1970s.

 

O'Reilly thinks part of the problem is that Pepsi made the ad in-house, without an ad agency on hand to offer objectivity.

"It makes Pepsi feel so self-important that it's hard to watch."

'Big time attention'

O'Reilly said it's a "new era" for advertising, one where companies have started (and are sometimes pressured) to take stances on divisive issues and mix politics into their messaging. Both Airbnb and building supply company 84 Lumber ran prime-time ads during February's Super Bowl targeting President Donald Trump's stance on immigration.

But these types of ads have the potential to backfire and alienate large swathes of an audience. That's what O'Reilly thinks happened here. "I'm sure they knew it was going to be somewhat contentious," he said. 

At first, Pepsi defended the ad, saying in a statement that it showed "people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony." But Pepsi apologized less than a day later, saying the ad had "missed the mark."

Many other big brands have had their ads yanked — Sony once pulled a "racist" ad for its PSP device while Wrigley's had to pull its ad of a man "barfing" up a dog. And PepsiCo, Pepsi's parent company, has faced an ad backlash before. In 2013, Mountain Dew scrapped one of its ads criticized for portraying racial stereotypes and appearing to make light of violence toward women.

 

Pepsi's decision doesn't come as a big surprise to O'Reilly. "The upside is that everyone is talking about it," he said. "Attention is the oxygen for every brand. And this is big time attention."

'Blatantly awful and tone deaf'

John Pylypczak, president of the Toronto brand agency Concrete, could see what Pepsi was trying to tap into but thought the delivery was poor and had a "certain desperation" to it.

"I think they had no choice but to pull it because it was just so blatantly awful and tone deaf," he said. "These are important issues and you can't trivialize it like that."

While the ad has scored Pepsi a ton of publicity, Pylypczak thinks the company wouldn't have wanted to gain attention through controversy. "It's a tough one to defend."

Model and Kardashian clan member Kendall Jenner's turn as a Pepsi-wielding protester had many on social media calling it an appropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement. (Pepsi/YouTube)

Mitch Joel, the Canadian president of the digital agency Mirum, said Pepsi would have known it was taking a gamble with the ad and that it may have even paid off if the motive was getting attention.

"It's a stunt. They are pulling a stunt," he said. "It's doing what Pepsi needs to do in a very compressed market for them to sell sugar and water."

Pepsi apologized for putting Kendall Jenner "in this position." But Joel said he can't see the misstep hurting Jenner's or Pepsi's brand in the long term.

"By the time this piece is published, there will be someone else that did something more ridiculous and more stupid," he said. "All will be forgotten tomorrow."

About the Author

Haydn Watters

Haydn Watters is a Toronto-based journalist. He has worked for CBC News and CBC Radio in Halifax, Yellowknife, Ottawa and Toronto, with stints at the politics bureau and the entertainment unit. He also ran an experimental one-person pop-up bureau for the CBC in Barrie, Ont.

With files from The Associated Press

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