Starting in 1909, imprisoned suffragettes protested with life-threatening hunger strikes. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In 2012, Malala Yousafzai, undeterred by a Taliban gunman’s attempt on her life, continued to advocate on behalf of women’s rights and education. And in 2017, supermodel Kendall Jenner participated in a fake protest as part of a Pepsi ad campaign.
On Monday, America’s second favorite cola company—let’s be real here, Coke would have won the popular vote—released an ad that’s tailor-made to the Trump era. Apparently, someone over at Pepsi noticed that, ever since Trump got elected, people have been more inclined to shout things in the street and make genitalia-inspired crafts. “How can we capitalize on this political energy?” thought the industrious employee. “Which hot young celebrity/social-media influencer can we hire to convince consumers that Pepsi is the carbonated soft drink of the Resistance?”
It’s hard to imagine the brainstorming sessions that led to this tone-deaf campaign, aka Pepsi’s “Live for Now Moments Anthem” starring Kendall Jenner and featuring “Lions” by Skip Marley. Now, as a satirical commercial—perhaps a commentary on the paradox of radical revolt under a capitalist system—Pepsi’s “Live for Now Moments Anthem” is a work of genius. Against a hypnotic soundtrack, we watch diverse young people do artistic things. An Asian man plays a cello. A woman in a hijab does something with a marker. Millennials eat brunch. Meanwhile, supermodel Kendall Jenner is wearing a blond bob at a nearby photoshoot. One by one, these beautiful people abandon their creative endeavors and/or brunches to join a growing march. It is, according to the signs held up by the protesters, a march for “Peace” and “Love.” One sign implores citizens to “Join the Conversation.” One can only imagine that these hordes of good-looking, diverse millennials have been driven to the streets, absolutely fed up with their low-quality conversations and the distinct lack of peace. “Where is the love?” they ask, as they breakdance, wave their hands in the air, and drink Pepsi.
Jenner is torn between her innate professionalism and her overwhelming desire to march with a bunch of strangers who are protesting nothing. Eventually she gives in, ripping off her wig and running into the fray. But the ad hasn’t reached its nadir yet. That comes when Jenner, now leading the protest, runs up to the line of police officers blocking their path and offers one of them a Pepsi. He drinks the soda, and the crowd cheers. Apparently, this was the goal of the vague protest: to convince a police officer to accept a free canned beverage. Kendall Jenner is elated. The screen goes black.
As Elle explained, the image of Jenner approaching the line of solemn cops evokes the picture of Black Lives Matter protester Ieshia Evans getting arrested while marching in Baton Rouge. Whether subconsciously or deliberately, Pepsi is trying to replicate the poignancy of that striking photo: one woman, alone and unafraid, stepping forward to face a legion of heavily armed police officers. Because, at the end of the day, what’s the difference between a white model in a national ad campaign and a black activist putting her body on the line in peaceful protest? #KendallJennerMatters, everyone.
Seriously though—the only way this frame could have been more offensive was if Jenner was wearing rainbow-dyed dreadlocks (Pepsi defended the ad, calling it “an important message to convey”). Civil-rights activist DeRay McKesson, a thought leader in the Black Lives Matter movement, has already mocked the ad’s message, tweeting, “If I had carried Pepsi I guess I never would’ve gotten arrested. Who knew?”
Awkwardly enough, this isn’t the first time Kendall Jenner has participated in a fake protest to get us to buy something. In 2014, she was one of the models who walked in Chanel’s “feminist” fashion show. Alongside big names like Cara Delevingne and Gisele Bündchen, Jenner helped turn the catwalk into a street protest scene, complete with inane signs like “Free freedom” and “Women’s rights are more than alright!” Delevingne even carried a megaphone.
It’s one thing to create art inspired by a political movement or a cultural moment. It’s quite another to co-opt activist imagery and make it bland and innocuous in an attempt to sell expensive couture or caloric soft drinks. Of course, it was only a matter of time before the so-called #Resistance led to targeted corporate ad campaigns. After all, when Audre Lorde first conceptualized self-care as an act of political warfare for women of color, she never would have guessed that by 2017 it would be a buzzword used to market facemasks and scented candles to white ladies. And the Women’s March was a boon for Etsy retailers, with groups of protesters competing to see who had the most pussy memorabilia and the best anti-Trump swag. For every seasoned activist or newly woke constituent, there is a retailer or businessman trying to profit off of their passion.
As surely as the revolution will be televised, it will be monetized.
Still, if you’re going to mine the Trump resistance to produce an entirely apolitical ad campaign, you could at least hire a spokeswoman who’s politically active off the clock. Jenner, whose main public “cause” appears to be sleep paralysis, is not that spokeswoman. Jenner was in Paris for Fashion Week during the Women’s March. To mark the occasion, she posted a topical Instagram of a protest, captioned, “i wish i could have been a part of this amazing history. beyond proud.” Of course, Jenner could have easily become a part of this “amazing history” by going outside and protesting. Weirdly enough, knowing that Kendall Jenner is “proud” of all of womankind isn’t really doing it for me—if you can cash a check for acting in a fake Pepsi protest, you can show up to the real Women’s March.
Republican conspiracy theorists: if you’re still searching for an elusive “paid protester,” might I suggest Kendall Jenner? You can have her.