Pepsi Zero: The Taste-Free Ad With No Fans

April 7, 2017

It’s been all over the Internet—Pepsi’s now-pulled advertisement starring Kendall Jenner. While millions of Americans are taking to the streets with a deadly serious passion not seen since the Vietnam era, Pepsi presented a world where protesting is a fun weekend activity and a can of pop will solve any problem. The consensus on the ad: tone-deaf garbage. At the tender age of one-and-a-half days, Pepsi released the standard “oops” Twitter apology, put its tail between its legs, and canned the ad.

Companies taking advantage of current events is nothing new–Pepsi’s rival, Coca-Cola, did it better in ’71 with a now iconic singalong ad. Indeed, Pepsi’s after-the-fact explanation of their intent—‘to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding’—is eerily similar to the Wikipedia description of the “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad. However, if you’re going to piggyback on a movement, make sure you do so with authenticity and respect. Pepsi’s “short film” was nowhere close.

If you missed the ad before it went kicking and screaming back to the bad idea pit from whence it crawled, fear not, here’s a Buzzfeed-style GIF breakdown for you.

First though, I have to ask: Why was the cellist in the ad so dang sweaty?

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Let’s start the diversity count: one sweaty Asian cellist, one Muslim woman photographer who can’t seem to find the perfect Getty Image shot to really sum up her “feels”—by the end we’ll have the complete cast of Captain Planet. Now, do not misread this, diversity is imperative; but rather than promoting diversity, this ad just uses it as a cheap gimmick.

So what are all these varied, beautiful people marching about? Protest signs in the ad read: “Love,” “Join the conversation,” and “Peace.” What a simple, pure, completely un-confrontational protest that manages to stand for nothing and please everyone! “Yes,” says the target Pepsi drinker, “I can definitely get behind ‘love’… maybe not gender equality, police reform, $15 minimum wages, a strong separation of church and state, and human rights for all…but ‘love’? Count me in!”

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Let’s talk about the model in the room, Kendall Jenner. Pepsi asked a simple question: “Who is the face of the millennial generation?” and the unpaid Gen Z intern answered: “Kendall Jenner, totally.” From the little I know about this Kardashian she does seem to be the living embodiment of a can of Pepsi: vapid sugar water. I snooped her Twitter to try and get a grasp of what she may stand for besides conspicuous consumption and delusions of grandeur, and the only thing I managed to find was this tweet:

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I agree! Someone give this woman a short film, please!

Sweaty cellist spots mini-Kim throwing vogue and gives her the “Yo, wanna hang?” head nod mid-protest, as if it’s the equivalent of Frisbee golf.

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KJ becomes filled with the need to party protest and joins the march, but not before dramatically changing into her “protest outfit.”

GO GIRL, rip off that WIG OF OPPRESSION, that LIPSTICK OF SUBJUGATION. Join your fashionable, skinny, #diverse, 20-somethings and march for… things!

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They also have an ice tub full of Pepsi at this protest. I missed all the free food and drinks at the last protest I went to.

Mini-Kim, being the bold, caring individual she is, sees a parched police officer and model-struts over to him with a Pepsi. Cop man takes a sip of Pepsi and makes a face that says, “Well it’s not Coke, but ok.”

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And the crowd goes wild! Sexism? OVER! Racism? GONE! My acne? CLEARED! Maybe, we can all actually get along? We all enjoy a nice soda pop, don’t we?

Meanwhile, our photographer friend in distress is like, “FINALLY, the shot that perfectly sums up everything I’ve been trying to say: deep down, we’re all carbonated sugar water.” We end on a call to action to “LIVE BOLDER”—despite everything in the ad being a wet noodle of an idea.

I don’t know about you, but the gnawing millennial dread I’ve been feeling fizzed away like the carbonation in America’s favorite beverage.

As a creative, if you’re going to produce an ad inspired by current events, at least ask yourself the following questions:

1. Have we actually taken a stand on this issue, or are we just taking advantage of the fact that it’s topical?

2. Are we trivializing the emotions and hardships of others for our own gain?

3. Who could potentially be upset by this, and can we get them in the room to help us tell the right story?

4. How is our product or brand being integrated—if it’s interrupting the story, can we take it out or make it subtler?

5. Are we casting the right people to make the ad authentic? Are we forcing “diversity” just to check off a box?

Pepsi did not seem to consider any of the above, and the result was an inauthentic, offensive trash fire that now has the entire Twittersphere assuming the worst about the intention behind the ad. Facing accusations of appropriating the zeitgeist for crass ends and purposeful manipulation of fresh feelings to sell an unrelated product, removing the ad quickly became the only option.

In asking, “How did this happen,” I’m promoting a simpler, less sinister answer to the question: lack of diversity in key positions. This ad went through multiple levels of people who saw none of the faults so readily apparent to so many. Look to the makeup of the crew responsible for creating it. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, of the Americans employed in arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations in 2016, 48.5% were women, 6.6% were Black or African American, 5.5% were Asian, and 10.6% were Hispanic or Latino. [SOURCE: Bureau of Labor Statistics]

The more diverse your team, the more perspective you’ll have. We can do better.