How not to get ahead in advertising
Pepsi's 'worst ad of all time' is not the first bid by corporate giants to hijack social issues to flog their wares
It's been a turbulent week in the advertising world. On Tuesday, skincare brand Nivea swiftly apologised and removed a deodorant advert claiming "white is purity", amid a widespread social media backlash over the campaign's racist connotations. And that wasn't even the most tone-deaf ad of the week - it was followed by what has already been labelled The Worst Ad Of All Time. Just 24 hours after releasing its new Pepsi Moments video starring supermodel Kendall Jenner, Pepsi pulled the ad against a backdrop of worldwide furore.
In the clip, the 21-year-old dons a blonde wig while working at a fashion shoot. Mid-pose she sees a protest amble by (its participants holding placards painted simply with peace signs and hearts) and flings off her wig, whips off her dress and joins the crowd. She approaches a policeman who presides calmly over the protest and hands him the chalice of peace - a can of Pepsi. A woman in a headscarf takes her picture, the protesters start to dance and elsewhere, in the real world, the internet implodes with fury.
The ad has been criticised for its striking similarity to the now-iconic image of Iesha L Evans, the young black woman who stood tall in the face of armed state troopers during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 2016.
The timing of this particular gaffe was so bad that it has managed to unite both conservatives and left-leaning liberals in their outrage, no mean feat considering these divided Trumpian times. It's been called a "glaring misstep" (Time), "stupefyingly diabolical" (Piers Morgan) and "the highest order mindf***" (Kalle Lasn, editor of anti-consumerist publication Adbusters). Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr, joined in the backlash by posting a photo of her father, mid-protest, with the comment "If only daddy had known about the power of #Pepsi".
It's not the first time a corporate giant has hijacked a social issue and used it to advertise its wares. Airbnb outraged San Franciscans with a series of passive-aggressive ads directed at an upcoming vote to tighten regulations on rental arrangements... like Airbnb. It snarkily suggested spending the tax already paid by Airbnb users on community initiatives like "planting more trees".
During February's Super Bowl it aired an ad titled 'We Accept' featuring people of various ethnicities, in protest to President Trump's travel ban. A worthy cause, but perhaps the $5m spent on the ad could have been used to help a variety of causes behind closed doors. But then, the 111.3 million viewers wouldn't know just how much Airbnb cared.
Stylistically, it brought to mind another, far catchier, ad featuring an array of people from all across the world, all united for a cause: a cold glass of Coke. The 'I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke' clip from 1971 remains one of the most memorable adverts, and jingles, of all time.
In addition to immigration and anti-racism, brands have struggled to master the art of feminism in advertising. The cosmetics industry is built on the insecurities of women and yet companies like Dove (and its now infamous Real Women campaign) insists that it is women's imperfections that make them perfect. If that were the case, surely its Essential Body Lotion wouldn't be so essential, nor the liberal use of Photoshop in its campaigns.
Some corporations move beyond the confines of advertising to align themselves with burning social issues.
Each year LGBTQ issues become conveniently pressing to companies as annual Pride celebrations roll around. Apple gave 8,000 branded t-shirts to staff to wear during the parade in San Francisco, while just days ago in Australia companies like QANTAS, Google, eBay and Airbnb (remember them?) joined forces to create an advertisement in favour of same-sex marriage, an issue currently being debated in parliament.
Pepsi said in a statement: "Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue."
But make light they did. Not only that but they used a model whose privileged life has been documented on television since she was a child to represent change for minorities. Expect an ad from Coke in the coming days, offering to wash the bad taste out of everyone's mouth.