Pepsi – Culturally Tone Deaf

The Epic Fail

Especially now, when assimilation, progressivism, and attention to social / civil issues are hot topics, a brand can’t afford to appear culturally tone deaf. That’s where Pepsi messed up. Big time. Their latest commercial received so much backlash, it threw back in their face like a shaken soda. Ironically, the majority of the critics were the exact auidience Peps was aiming for. Why? Because social justice and consumerism is something that, in the eyes of most progressives, should be mutually exclusive.

The strategy behind the ad was good in theory. Since Coca-Cola branded themselves as classic and timeless, Pepsi took on the brand persona of modern and relevant. Where the brand messed up was their execution. The commercial films individuals joining an on-going political march, including an Asian musician, an Arab photographer, and Kendall Jenner who hands a police officer a Pepsi and makes everything better.

Although Pepsi’s intention was to inspire peace and unity, the commercial upset people on all sides of the political spectrum. Many critizied it for tribalizing Black Lives Matter Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 9.57.41 PMand using token characters to represent minority groups among a majority of white actors. People also complained that the commercial starred a celebrity with little relevance to the tense political climate and characterized police enforcement as “the bad guys”.  Even one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughters tweeted about how insulting it was.

Those who weren’t seriously offended by the ad, joked about it. Jimmy Falon mentioned it briefly and SNL made it in to an entire skit. Of course, this didn’t help the brand make talk about it go away.

The Apology

With all the critics and jokes rolling in, Pepsi had to act fast. They pulled the ad, making sure it never aired to U.S. television and issued out an apology statement. They explained their intension behind the ad, and basically said they didn’t mean to “make light f any serious issue”. Screen Shot 2017-07-18 at 9.57.15 PMMany people wanted more than this single apology. They wanted Pepsi to specifically address where they went wrong and apologize to the groups that they offended. At that point, it was probably for the best for Pepsi to sit down and shut up. The brand didn’t want to run the risk of putting their foot in their mouth again. Plus, the brand doing anything to turn this into a conversation about social issues would be a disaster considering they lost all credibility in this area.

The Alternative

If Pepsi wanted to portray an image of promoting unity throughout different subcultures there are a lot more effective ways to do so. First, a huge Hollywood production comes off as insincere, especially when the only star you have in the spot is Kendall Jenner who isn’t exactly someone a lot of people peg as an inspirational celebrity. If the brand wanted to keep the same message they should’ve tried to contribute to some sort of focus group involving the different races and opposing forces displayed. Then they could talk about how they’re trying to help communication between police and diverse groups of people in order to peacefully talk through their issues. Whatever way they could’ve decided to go, concept testing is essential!

The Aftermath

The news cycle moves fast in the media. Most likely, this has already been forgotten by most people as other big brands continue to pull stupid stunts like this. Although there may have been a hit to the brand’s image and sales, permanent damage is unlikely. Hopefully, this is a hard lesson learned for the company.

Team #6 Austin Adams, Katelyn McCall, Bradley Mitchell, Hannah Wright

Photo credit: @tommyflorez


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