THE JOY OF COLA?
Before Faking a Protest With Kendall Jenner, Pepsi Ads Mocked Suicide, Domestic Violence & Eating Disorders
The tone-deaf Kendall Jenner protest ad isn’t the first Pepsi marketing misfire. Previous ads have made light of abuse, body image, and even featured a cartoon killing itself.
So many people said yes to it.
That’s the truly fascinating thing to remember when it comes to the Kendall Jenner-starring Pepsi ad that appropriates imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement and the Trump backlash mobilization of millennials to…sell soda.
It’s honestly thrilling, to the point that it needs to be studied, that so many people—Pepsi executives, the ad’s creative team, right down to Jenner herself—paused not once to say, “Hmm…” in the creation of this commercial, which, based on how quickly it went viral may be the truest test-case yet of the “all publicity is good publicity” maxim.
The add was so despised that Pepsi pulled it Wednesday afternoon and actually apologized to Kendall Jenner for it.
Sure, we can see why Pepsi would attempt to do something meaningful with its new commercial. Advertising has historically exceled when it manages to capture a cultural moment—be it heartwarming or edgy—and fold that spirit into its branding.
It’s been decades since “Buy the World a Coke,” and, as this year’s Super Bowl proved, the most effective and provocative commercials tapped into the political zeitgeist to make edgy, powerful statements. (Though perhaps none as edgy as a supermodel ending police brutality and societal tension as we know it by simply handing an officer a can of soda.)
In fact, we can almost see the pitch meeting as it unfolded. “Today’s Pepsi girl isn’t just a consumer. She’s an activist! She’s passionate about the world! She cares that the police in riot gear get their sugar fix!”
It’s a version of the hilarious Saturday Night Live spoof this season that mocked the message-y commercials we mentioned earlier with a pitch meeting that finds executives going gaga over the idea of using the plight of immigrants, Muslims, and the trans community to sell Cheetos.
The Kendall Jenner protest commercial isn’t the first time Pepsi’s had the world shaking its head in astonishment over an insensitive, tone-deaf ad. To be fair, when a company is around for more than 100 years, it’s going to send out a few misfires in its attempt to stay relevant.
With the tizzy over the current ad still bubbling fizzier than a freshly popped cola, it might seem like piling on to revisit some of the brand’s past failures. Consider it just part of our fascination. Here are 7 other times that so many people, somehow, said yes.
Pepsi Max Suicide Campaign
Pepsi Max, recently renamed Pepsi Zero Sugar in the U.S., is a one-calorie alternative to Diet Pepsi. That distinction prompted the tagline: “Pepsi Max. One very lonely calorie.” And what does one very lonely calorie do, according a series of print ads that ran in German magazines? It tries to kill itself.
The 2008 ads created various scenes of suicide for the lonely calorie: hanging, gunshot, poison, explosion, and slitting its wrists. One kitchen-sink version saw the poor guy shooting itself in the forehead while a noose was tied around its neck and a dripping bottle of poison in its free, non-gun-wielding hand.
Following controversy, Pepsi pulled the ad campaign.
Pepsi Max Love Hurts Campaign
Pepsi Max has really had a go of it. In 2011, the drink ran a Super Bowl commercial featuring a black couple with a nagging wife who keeps stopping her husband from eating junk food. On a park bench he sneakily opens a Pepsi Max, and is shocked when she sits down and starts drinking one, too. It’s because they’re lo-cal! Get it?
Everything seems great until a white female jogger runs by their bench and the husband checks her out. Outraged, his wife hurls her Pepsi Max can at him, but he ducks, the can hits the jogger, and she’s knocked out completely. On its own, it’s a confusing coda to a commercial that had already made its point. But as viewers were quick to point out, it also perpetuates negative racial and gender stereotypes.
The optics of having the wife inhabit Angry Black Woman characteristics and exhibit jealousy over the white woman was apparently lost on the director of the commercial. Director Brad Bosley responded to the controversy claiming that he thought the married couple fit his vision of a generic pairing, and it just so happened “those were the best actors [he] had and [he] put them in there without thinking about race at all.”
Diet Pepsi ‘Skinny’ Can
Back in 2011, Diet Pepsi introduced a “skinny” version of its can just in time for Fashion Week. The brand described the new can as “taller” and “sassier” than the traditional can, adding that “our slim, attractive new can is the perfect complement to today’s most stylish looks.”
Yes, you were just fat-shamed by a soda can.
Unsurprisingly—except, again, maybe to all those executives who said yes to this—critics immediately jumped on the implied reinforcement of dangerous stereotypes about women, body image, and beauty. The National Eating Disorders Association even weighed in, calling it “thoughtless and irresponsible.”
Mountain Dew’s Snitch Ad
Obtuseness abounds throughout PepsiCo, with its brand Mountain Dew the subject ire for its own 2013 ad.
In the commercial, a battered woman, bruised and in casts, is told to pick her abuser out of a police lineup. All the men in the lineup are black, save for one goat. The goat tells the woman, “Ya better not snitch on a player” and “keep ya mouth shut.” In the end, she screams and runs away.
The extra-caffeinated outrage caused Mountain Dew to remove the ad almost immediately.
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” Ad
The commercial itself was, in Madonna’s own words, “very, very sweet” and “sentimental.” The much-hyped spot—commercials for the commercial aired leading up to its debut—the singer watches old black-and-white clips of herself as a child. Then while adult Madonna starts singing her hit “Like a Prayer” in different locales—a city street, a diner, the halls of a school, a church—the footage is interspersed with clips of the young girl.
The commercial premiered on March 2. The “Like a Prayer” music video premiered on March 3.
But when consumers began confusing the commercial, which was innocuous bordering on adorable, with the controversial music video for the song, which included imagery of burning crosses, stigmata, and a pop star kissing a priest, petitions were drawn up for Pepsi to stop airing the commercial. Which it did, after having paid the singer more than $5 million to appear in the spot in the first place.
“Amp Up Before You Score” App
To promote a new energy drink called Amp, PepsiCo released an iPhone app called “Amp Up Before You Score.” The app basically delivered users tips and tricks for picking up 24 different types of women—“the treehugger,” “cougar,” “sorority girl,” and, um, “married”—so that they can “score” (the euphemism, of course, should be evident).
Yes, Pepsi attempted to pitch itself as a wingman for your iPhone.
Further freezing the debacle in time, Pepsi released this very 2009 apology for the app…on Twitter: “Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women. We apologize if it’s in bad taste & appreciate your feedback.”
Michael Jackson Gets Burned
In 1984, Michael Jackson suffered second-degree burns to his scalp when his hair and jacket caught on fire after dancing too close to pyrotechnics during a Pepsi commercial shoot.
Nothing about this is tone-deaf. We’re just offended that Pepsi set the King of Pop on fire.