Soft drinks giant Pepsi was forced to withdraw its new ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner on Wednesday amid accusations that it trivialised demonstrations in the name of social justice.
In the advert, the reality TV star and model joins a heavily policed protest. She walks over to one of the officers and hands him a can of Pepsi, diffusing the tension. The crowds cheer — smiles all round.
The sense of unity presented in the advert was not felt in the real world, however.
Critics attacked the advert for making a mockery of recent protests against the police killing of black men in cities across the US such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Ferguson, Missouri.
Unlike the Pepsi advert, protesters were ignored by police and the atmosphere was tense.
— Will (@YeahItsWilly) 5 April 2017
What’s more, the image of Jenner and the police referenced the photograph of Ieshia Evans, an 18-year-old black woman who bravely approached heavily armored riot police during a Black Lives Matter protest after the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling by police in 2016.
She was not greeted with a smile — she was escorted away by force.
— BD_PR (@Brittany_AD) 5 April 2017
Bernice King, the daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, posted a photo on Twitter of her father confronted by a police officer at a protest march in the 1960s.
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) 5 April 2017
Pepsi responded to criticism, maintaining that the company did not intend to cause offense.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position,” the company said in an official statement on Wednesday.
The advert was posted to YouTube on Tuesday evening but was removed less than 24 hours later.
“Pepsi might quite fairly feel as though the criticism is unfair and that people have made a mountain out of a molehill,” Brinsley Dresden, head of advertising law at law firm Lewis Silkin told Verdict.
“Pepsi would have been perfectly within their rights to keep the advert up. I’m sure Pepsi had the right intentions and it just didn’t resonate with people in the way they’d hoped. Whenever brands engage in any kind of social commentary in advertising — however well-intentioned it is, there always seems to be somebody who wants to have a pop at them,” he added.
Dresden gave the example of the Heinz mayonnaise advert in 2008 featuring two gay men kissing, which was pulled after complaints that the content was offensive and inappropriate.
However, Stephanie O’Donohoe, a professor of advertising and consumer culture at the University of Edinburgh’s business school is more critical of the advert. She remains surprised that it was ever made in the first place.
“For me the bigger question is how did this ever get produced? I would love to have been a fly on the wall in the agency and client meetings that led to the idea being approved,” she told Verdict. “It is interesting to see Pepsi’s apology extending to Kendall Jenner for putting her in this position — but did Jenner or her advisers not think this one through either?”
In terms of financial implications, Pepsi will make losses on the production costs for making the advert and the substantial fee charged by Jenner.
“Pepsi will have little or no wasted media costs because it didn’t get to broadcast yet,” explained Dresden. “But there will be wasted production costs — probably 7 figures, in the millions I expect as well as the reputational damage to the Pepsi brand.”
Pepsi, whose brands also include Mountain Dew, Lay’s crisps and Quaker oatmeal, spent $2.5bn on advertising in 2016.