We need to talk about Pepsi

The Pepsi debacle is a cautionary tale that will stand the test of time.

"Let them eat cake" – there is zero historical evidence that this phrase ever passed Marie Antoinette’s lips, but it has become a global shorthand for the failure of an entitled elite to empathise with and understand the struggle of the masses. Now, in the marketing world, we can add "Let them drink Pepsi" to the lexicon of unchecked privilege. In the tales of brand messages lost in translation, the Pepsi debacle is a cautionary tale that will stand the test of time.

For one brief moment in time, an increasingly polarised consumer universe united to gawp in collective horror at the faux-activism of the ad starring Kendall Jenner, in which marchers held slogans as anodyne as "Join the conversation". 

Rob Doubal, co-president and chief creative officer at McCann London, told Campaign that the spot was "excellent news for creative agencies" but the sad reality is that it is anything but. While one Twitter user joked that the ad was in fact not for Pepsi but for Coca-Cola, it could also be argued that this film in essence communicated that marketing is an inherently vapid, meaningless pursuit. 

The cold hard truth is that consumers, also known as people, aren’t discussing the fact that the ad was made by an in-house creative team. In all probability, neither are most marketers – who are faced with headlines declaring that the spot underlines the "dangers of brand-building". Do we really think that, on watching this ad, marketers will decide to be more brave, to invest more in creativity? More likely, as TMW Unlimited chief executive Chris Pearce says, it will make the industry more nervous and more risk-averse than ever. 

The ad’s failure should not be mistaken as evidence of the shortcomings of brands investing in a broader social purpose – instead, it’s the polar opposite. The backlash to Pepsi’s dead-eyed vision of activism is a reminder to the industry of the perils of having a positioning rather than taking a real stand. Especially for an industry that is at times guilty of using diversity as a thought-leadership platform as opposed to actually addressing the uncomfortable changes necessary to challenge the status quo. 

As Bernice King, chief executive of The King Center and daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, so eloquently wrote, the Pepsi ad and the responses to it "reflect deep issues around race and privilege". Writing on The Huffington Post, she said: "We cannot ignore that we are currently grappling with gross injustice and inhumanity." 

The reality is that this ad and its positioning-over-purpose approach diminishes us all. We can do better than this.

Nicola Kemp is trends editor at Campaign. 

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