Pepsi ad debacle: industry responds to what went wrong

The industry has hit out at Pepsi's failed attempt to connect with audiences, calling for the brand to take more responsibility for its actions.

Earlier this week, the brand faced fierce backlash on social media after it released an ad featuring Kendall Jenner joining a peace march and handing a police officer a can of Pepsi.

The brand pulled the ad after just one day saying: "Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise."

Here’s what the industry thinks:

Remco Graham, executive creative director and partner, Now

The power of saying no. In today’s advertising landscape of collaboration, it’s just as important as saying yes.

If a team at Now had come to me with the thought of Kendall Jenner solving institutionalised racism by giving a police officer a fizzy drink it would have been a no.

It wouldn’t have got out of the door. Let alone to a client.

The question we have to ask ourselves is does having an in-house agency make it harder to say no to the client?

Because sometimes, saying yes to everything can give you the worst advert ever made.

A senior global chief marketing officer

As a brand you cannot make up your right to comment on, or in this case exploit, societal issues that are completely irrelevant to the values and purpose you are built around.

Coke has earned its right over decades. In 1974 Coke was the most widely distributed global brand. Drunk by all races and religions.

In 2013 the face and shape of the American family is in constant evolution due to multicultural immigration. The families may change but the majority of families still drink Coke.

There is zero truth in this terrible story about Pepsi.

Maarten Van Daele, strategist, Creature of London

If PepsiCo’s marketing department had chosen to pay for a (good) creative agency where people from different backgrounds/nationalities work together to make the best work, this "ad" wouldn’t have been so shit.

Both this campaign and the way it backfired show just how important diversity – of thought, as well as gender and ethnicity – is for creative companies. And how it might be our industry’s biggest competitive advantage.

Hopefully PepsiCo understands that now… unfortunately, they had to find it out the hard way.

Lilian Sor, head of planning, Grey London

It’s too easy to piggyback the cultural sentiment of today, the increasing sense of divide and restlessness that is felt in the world. A team that was truly living and feeling the cultural zeitgeist rather than observing it would never have let this slide.

Steve Challouma, marketing director, Birds Eye

An ad agency could have come up with that kind of idea as well – I don’t think the fact that it was internally produced increased that risk. But I’d be very interested to see what due diligence they did around this. Given the negative response it had, it would be very surprising that they wouldn’t have picked up on this response.

Graeme Noble, chief creative officer, TMW Unlimited

If only the Tolpuddle Martyrs had been colour coordinated – who knows what they could’ve achieved?

Ben Kerr, chief strategy officer, Somethin’ Else

It is a rather a naïve box-ticking exercise as Pepsi tried to attach itself to what it thought was a populist bandwagon. A data-inspired execution that lacks any genuine understanding of who the audience are and how they think.

I suppose the one area that Pepsi got something right is that young people are politically engaged in the issues they care about. The data was right on that one.

Now rather than just take down their ad, they need to demonstrate that they do care and do want to help make change happen.

It’s not enough to apologise you need to do something about it. I doubt the audience will ever begin to forgive them until they do, and then they’ll see the power of protest as people stop buying their fizzy drinks. Better act quickly Pepsi.

Seb Hill, executive creative director, BBD Perfect Storm

It is so bad I think "doing a Pepsi" will enter the venacular as a way to describe something highly inappropriate and embarrassing.

In 1971, when Coke "taught the world to sing" I don’t think anyone ever thought a sugary drink could solve the world’s problems – but at least it was done in a charming, catchy and celebratory way. It’s 46 years later, people are far less likely to buy it from a crude, patronising, unauthentic rip off.

The world is more cynical than ever and this is the worst kind of see-through greenwash.

David Billing, executive creative director, Above & Beyond

Pepsi has foolishly jumped in at the deep end. This is a bloody serious cultural trend, one where people around the globe are genuinely worried about whether democracy itself is dying.

If Pepsi had something to say, it needed to be amazing. It needed to raise the debate, reflect it or contribute to it. Instead, this is a cynical, messy, wild misunderstanding of the public mood. Trying to sell Pepsi as western liberalism crumbles is like selling 99 flakes on the deck of the Titanic.

Huib van Bockel, founder, Tenzing Natural Energy, and writer, The Social Brand

I don’t think it is necessary to comment on the obvious obnoxiousness of the ad and the misplaced romanticising and simplifying of these important issues. But reflect on where it all went wrong.

It always starts with the question. However they might have phrased it: at the core they asked themselves how can we capitalise on something that is current? And who is the most popular star that can deliver that message? Instead of asking themselves; is there something relevant we can add to this discussion, is there anything that we can do?

Jon Goldstone, global managing partner, the brandgym

The trend towards in-house content creation teams has many positives. They can produce cut-downs or adaptations of existing assets quickly and at a fraction of the cost of external agencies. However, they do have their limitations.

For something this important, I would have expected Pepsi to work with one of their long-standing creative agencies.

These are the people who deeply understand ‘tone’ and are not afraid to push-back when the client asks for something that they believe may ultimately damage the brand.

To quote the brilliant Dave Trott, a case of asking decorators to do the plumbing?

Jane Asscher, chief executive and founding partner, 23red

The ad was very ill-conceived in that it tried to be relevant in a space that it should not have tried to infiltrate.

Although, arguably, it’s aim was to demonstrate those from all walks of life coming together (albeit via a soft drink) – an on-the-surface good-hearted sentiment – in fact what it did was over-simplify the recent troubles and inequalities that many people across the world feel strongly about.

Unfortunately, the world’s problems won’t be solved by a Pepsi. Fortunately, at least everyone’s agreeing on that.

Ryan Newey, founder, Fold7

Pepsi released a statement acknowledging "they’d missed the mark". And miss the mark they did, largely I imagine as a result of a box ticking creative process.

You know the drill, it goes a little like this: "We need scale, meaning, context and a role for the brand" (reasonable so far...) "and we need the product in early, research shows that’s good, oh and we need to make as much of it blue as possible, it should feel Pepsi throughout" (errr branded protesters… ok.

Cut to the next meeting: "We’re liking this idea around uniting people but I think we’re missing a celebrity, lets get a celeb at the heart of it.

"Oh and the strategy is live bolder so lets show that moment of change, where someone has the courage to be who they really are."

Ok, consider it done "and this whole protest thing, it’s a bit angry, lets make it a bit like a concert with musicians".

And so it goes on, the boardroom shuffle, layer after layer of boxes being ticked, each nudge imperceptibly hidden behind a wall of consensus.

The Pepsi ad literally ticked all the boxes yet fundamentally not the one that matters, sincerity.

Jules Chalkley, chief creative officer, BMB

It’s a case study for when advertising goes bad. This is a corporation misconceiving its role in the world to a breathtaking degree.

Not only does it unite the internet against Pepsi, it also unites it against the industry we live and work in.

The challenge to create work that is valid, relevant, sensitive and progressive just got way, way harder.

Rob Doubal, chief creative officer, McCann London

It's excellent news for creative agencies whose true value is in offering originality, beauty and craft to bring around inordinate gains in commerce.

Tom Casswell, international planning director, Havas Media

Pepsico claimed it "missed the mark" with its latest ad. It did not just miss the mark, it glanced at the mark before firing blindly in the opposite direction. This ad is staggeringly lazy, and highlights a breath-taking corporate arrogance. The result is an abomination.

Senan Lee, creative, Cheil London

An idea that’s as watered down as the product. It feels as if you’re watching something that has had every comment from testing applied to it. From the cellist on the rooftop, to Kendall bopping a Pepsi can with her fellow protestors, the amount of patronising clichés it’s filled with makes it truly unique.

Alex Smith, planning director at marketing agency Sense

Despite the furore around the Pepsi ad, there should still be glimmers of hope to be found for the brand. Rarely has any ad generated so much buzz. Pepsi is now simply more famous than it was a week ago. A brand that hasn’t made ripples for a long time has just cannonballed into the pool of public consciousness, and the principal residue that will be left behind will probably be simply fame.

For a product that’s bought on impulse, with little deliberation by a fairly disinterested buyer, that’s not such a bad result.

Nadim Sadek, chief executive of brand consultancy TransgressiveX

It is really the scale of Pepsi's failure to correctly judge today’s more complex and sophisticated consumer interactions that has so badly let it down. Audiences don’t automatically disparage brands for attempts at activism – not when done well. But the ham-fistedness of the brand’s attempted manipulation of a knowing, cultured audience’s sentiments, has exposed that it’s really not only the message, but also the medium, which really counts.

It’s about getting the quid pro quo right, where people give you their time, their money and, if you’re lucky, their advocacy. In return, the brand gives a product or service which elevates it beyond the generic, and beyond its competitive set. This idea of this mutual exchange with consumers is subtle and complex. And it is this subtlety that Pepsi has singularly failed to attend to with success.


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