The gleeful abandon with which the world embraced the nightmare own-goal that was Pepsi’s most recent foray into carbonated-beverage-based activism was not entirely surprising. The film had all the elements in place for shock-and-awe contagion. A clueless celebrity as spokesperson. A culturally diverse, camera-ready cast, no doubt assembled by sensitive white people. And a story arc that trivialized the political unrest of our age whilst employing the brand’s hero product as the antidote to said discord.
It was that reductive. That stupid. What surprised me is how pious the advertising community’s response was.
Certainly, from an agency and production company point of view there was something deeply satisfying about watching a client that undervalues our contribution to the creative process—and whose building of a bespoke, in-house content studio a year prior sent chills down the spine of our industry—fall so spectacularly on their arses. But amongst the gleeful cawing, there’s a sad reality we’ve chosen to ignore.
Our job is to sell shit. In the most seductive, entertaining manner possible. As an industry we’ve lost sight of that
The ad was only a couple notes off the cynical, opportunistic dross that agencies frequently churn out and celebrate these days. We’ve become addicted to doing "good" in the world at the expense of all else. At the expense of an idea. At the expense of whether that idea is relevant to what we’re actually selling. And at the expense of how we bring that work to life. Too often we make work for the sake of allegedly bringing about positive social change, and that’s not our job. Our job is to sell shit. In the most seductive, entertaining manner possible. As an industry we’ve lost sight of that.
I’m not saying we abandon corporate responsibility or that we lean in to selling cigarettes to teenagers, but we’ve crawled so far up our own arses that when Saturday Night Live does a gleeful parody of what we’ve become ("Hard cut, Cheetos"—look it up if you haven’t seen it already) we can’t even step outside ourselves and see that they’ve got a point.
We’ve stopped making ads for a wider audience. We’re making ads for ourselves in an attempt to atone for our sins—make us feel better about what we do. At best, we transmit positive, cause-based messages in attempt to atone for the fact that we are titans of godless enterprise and we believe our souls need cleansing. And at worst, we produce this kind of garbage because we hope award show juries will feel something or want to "send a message" about a hot-button issue and our efforts will translate into wins.
We need to learn some hard lessons and do some serious introspection in the wake of this Pepsi debacle. We should use this as an opportunity to focus again on what we're great at: the ideas that sell things. In a surprising and delightful manner. The alternative is that the parody becomes the reality and we have nothing left to offer.
—David Kolbusz is chief creative officer at Droga5 London.