Why Pepsi and United Got It So Wrong

The big thumb of corporatism left two of America’s most iconic companies completely blind to their own missteps.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

What do America’s tone-deaf twins, Pepsi and United, tell us about what’s wrong with corporate leadership today?

For anyone who wasn’t in the Hermit Kingdom for the last two weeks, we had back-to-back incidents of self-inflicted social slaughter. First, Pepsi had to yank its fatally-conceived commercial featuring Kendall Jenner handing a can of the sugary stuff to a fake cop, a gesture which was almost universally seen as trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement through an unjustifiable apotheosis of the brand as a cultural peacemaker. Then, United Airline sent real cops onto a plane to yank a paying customer out of his seat—and the CEO’s initial reaction was to defend the ejection maneuver.

Deconstruct these two seemingly disparate disasters and what emerges is a surprising continuity—broken management was trapped in a one-dimensional view of the landscape, when we are living in a multi-dimensional Rubik’s cube.

What blinded Pepsi? The existential imperative to be emotionally connected to their consumers; the brandosphere is filled with talk about how products must be culturally relevant to prosper today. The decision to insert Pepsi into the “conversation” about Black Lives Matter came from that place, but ended up in a horrible spot because they looked to the past for their model, and misread the lessons.

That past was 36 years ago, and also the pivot point of the final episode of Mad Men. In that reality-bending moment, the fictional Don Draper is credited with creating one of the most memorable commercials of capitalist history. As the Hollywood Reporter wrote: “The last scenes…feature Don hugging a stranger at a retreat and meditating with hippies before the episode cuts to the 1971 Coca-Cola “Hilltop commercial.”

This commercial—which captured a group of young, earnest global citizens gathered on a mountaintop in Italy, singing a folk-tinged anthem, was such a beloved statement of unity during a divisive time that the anthemic score, “I want buy the world a Coke” morphed into a popular song retitled “I want to teach the world to sing.”

Some context: Just a year earlier, in 1970, the Kent State shootings and the invasion of Cambodia rended the nation. That was only three short years after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The hated draft was in place; there were 334,000 troops in Vietnam; the Pentagon Papers were published. “All in the Family,” that breakthrough bottling of the zeitgeist, premiered in 1971.

It sure seemed like the right time for a soft drink to be a national healer. Pepsi’s own retraction confirms this parallel ambition; they wrote “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark…”

They missed the mark because their rush to relevance blinded them to a literalized, conceptual disaster. Compared to Coke, the Pepsi spot was a ham-handed check of every box, down to the hijab-wearing photographer. This scene-by-scene breakdown in the Washington Post is a triumphant take-down, walking us through to the conclusory locus of the mockery—Kendall Jenner handing her Pepsi to the stone-faced young policeman. Which led to the most devastating response of all, a tweet from Bernice King—“If only Daddy had known about the power of #Pepsi”—juxtaposed with a shot of her father being strong-armed by a state trooper.

Pepsi defaulted to every risible trope of lifestyle advertising—quick cuts of cool people in prettified urban environments—gentrification on steroids, another level of cultural insensitivity. And the entire staging of the “protest” felt unbearably fake and inauthentic; just a lot of beautiful people in a celebratory mode, badly feigning political fire. They could have been on their way to a sample sale.

Coke’s spot was elegantly allusive, requiring no visual telegraphing. It was celebrity-free and modest. As Giep Franzen wrote in the “The Science and Art of Branding”, “…its meaning of universal brotherhood is immediately understood without any announcer proclaiming the obvious.” It was a plaintive cri de coeur in a troubled time, a hymnal that well-masked its commercial intent.

Just how hard was it to anticipate the firestorm of criticism? Only management that feels threatened to the bone could be so struthious—and Pepsi’s business is decaying in real time. “Coke and Pepsi are facing a terrifying reality,” is how Business Insider put it. Under that one-dimensional pressure, desperately seeking relevance wins over common sense.

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United’s blindness came from a different kind of hyper-focus. When Oscar Munoz first defended his employee’s actions after dragging a bloodied Dr. Dao off the plane—and then doubled down on that support—he was trapped in a disastrous recursive paradigm. He pitted his employee manual against his consumers. A zero-sum spiral to the bottom.

Pepsi’s leaders were unable to see out of their own relevance obsession; United’s were locked in an obsession with process, unable to react to what everyone else saw was just plain wrong.

Munoz finally struck the right chord in his belated apology, where he said that a “system failure” created a horrific situation where the “company didn’t provide the right tools or resources to allow United’s ‘front-line managers’ to “use their common sense.” In other words, the airline didn’t liberate its employees to act humanely and intelligently.

Which is all that matters. We want the people we interact with—United employees, telemarketing automata—to come off the script and live in the world of Sesame Street fairness. That’s the same animating impulse behind today’s populist surge; we don’t want to be ground down by the big thumb of corporatism. The applies whether it’s the fabrication of a grandiose commercial that clumsily attempts to win our coolness approval — without realizing the offensiveness of the content. Or whether it’s a WWE smack-down example of bureaucratic brutality. This is one domain where non-partisan rage prevails.

Generalization alert: Are we creating a generation of leadership who can operate fluidly and intuitively in this new multiverse, where you must unlearn (at least) half the things you’re taught in business school, where 100 million people in China will view a video of Combat in Coach and crush your enterprise value because it’s easier to express their frustration on United than Beijing? Do the people in charge understand they aren’t talking to interest groups or clusters or cohorts but raw and ready individuals? Do they know how to create and assess a new calculus of consequences?

I doubt it. There are real questions as to whether modern leaders, despite being surrounded by phalanxes of experts—or perhaps because of it—are well-suited to succeed in this dimensional, crazy-faceted modern world. Unfriendly skies ahead.