So, Pepsi has pulled its latest ad, with the star of the commercial, super model and Keeping up with the Kardashians star, Kendall Jenner, reportedly devastated and Pepsi issuing a grovelling apology. How could the debacle have been avoided?
It was 2016, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The atmosphere was explosive, following the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, and the subsequent shooting of five police officers by a sniper, protestors and the police faced each other. The moment that followed was immortalised by the spell of photography, as Iesha Evans, in her long flowing dress, displaying all the hallmarks of serenity stood, before riot police.
Forward wind the clock to April 2017, and this time it is down to Kendall Jenner, to literally break the ice. A bystander watching a street protest during a modeling photoshoot, she throws off her blond wig, smears her lipstick and joins the protest. And then by pulling a can of Pepsi from an ice bucket and handing it to the kind looking police officer, in the front line of the rather benevolent looking riot police, she diffuses the situation.
And that it appears is the secret. All we need to do is ‘join the conversation’, sharing a can of soda, and we can solve all the world’s problems.
It’s not a new idea, if you have a long memory you may recall the advertisement for Coca Cola back in the early 1970s: ‘I’d like to buy the world a Coke” sang the choir of ethnically diverse young things, and if you don’t know the ad: here it is:
But while the Coke ad, from 40-odd-years ago, was considered a masterpiece, the Pepsi ad has gone down with its audience like an especially ugly brick.
Pepsi was quick to pull the ad and issue an apology. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” it said, “clearly, we missed the mark and apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”
Meanwhile, Nivea has been busy pulling one of its ads.
In the case of Nivea, it is very hard to see how the ad ever got approved: “Keep it clean, keep it bright. Don’t let anything ruin it,” ran the copy with the accompanying headline: “White is purity.” The ad appeared on its Middle East Facebook page. Well, no excuses for that, the flaws in this ad should have been spotted on day one.
But what about the Pepsi debacle?
It is not usual for brands to link themselves to political causes: if their target audience holds a specific set of attitudes, then backing the campaigns this group feels an affinity to, can pay dividends. Ads from Airbnb and Google showed during the Super Bowl had an unmistakably pro-diversity anti-Trump theme.
Indeed, effective ads carry risks. And risks, by definition, can back-fire or else they wouldn’t be risks.
And Pepsi got it wrong.
Nicola Kemp, trends editor at advertising trade magazine, Campaign, was quoted as saying that the problem may have been that Pepsi made the ad in-house, rather than employ the services of an agency.
Others say the company was just too late, jumping on a bandwagon rather than trying to help it gain momentum.
Frankly, the Pepsi ad didn’t seem to be saying anything. In fact, it was unclear what the demonstrators were protesting about. It seemed more like a party. You could tell that the watching policeman were dying to join in.
Maybe, to run ads like this you just have to know what you are doing. You need expertise, you need better understanding of your demographic and the causes they support.
We are in the era when data analysis counts above creativity in the marketing process. But this may have a been an example of knowledge and understanding and a certain sympathy to the public mood counting for more than the ability to read data.
Pepsi’s big mistake may have been to invite its public to join a conversation which it hadn’t even joined itself.