Finley: Pepsi ad backfires, marketers should take note

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

There’s something quite satisfying in seeing Pepsi squirm after its attempt to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding” in a commercial that became anything but that. The soft-drink giant jumped into the obnoxious trend of delivering its product advertising with a political punch with an internet piece featuring Kendall Jenner, one of the fake celebrities spawned by the extended Kardashian clan.

The ad opens with Jenner in a blond wig posing for a photo shoot, while some sort of political protest rages nearby. Jenner, apparently in the throes of a life-changing epiphany, whips off the wig and runs to join the demonstration.

The newly woke model has an inspiration. She grabs a can of Pepsi and delivers it to a stern-faced cop helping police the event. He takes a sip. He smiles. She smiles. The demonstrators jump up and down in ecstasy. And, Voila! Unity, peace, understanding. Courtesy of Pepsi. Man! Who cares what’s actually in the can if it can do all that? But Pepsi forgot to weigh the many ways in which it is possible to offend in today’s hyper-sensitive world.

Black Lives Matter, perceiving the depicted protest to be one of its own, condemned Pepsi for appropriating its cause for crass commercialism. That Jenner is white made the offense even more unbearable. Essayists opined on what the ad says about race in America. Tweeters accused the company of trivializing the racial struggle. Similarities were unearthed to a real-life event in which a young black woman engaged an officer during a protest.

And Saturday Night Live mocked it all in a devastating skit. Good enough for Pepsi. Perhaps now Pepsi and everyone else will return to actually marketing their products. Madison Avenue is convinced consumers, millennials in particular, have their stores and churches mixed up and won’t buy corn chips unless they’re sold with a higher purpose.

This past Super Bowl was an absolute misery of preachiness by advertisers who hoped to capitalize on the activism spawned by the presidential election. Marketers traded humor for sermons, offering commercials praising the virtues of immigration and denouncing all the various isms. Not since Coke taught the world to sing has product advertising had so little to do with the actual product.

The risk in these times, of course, is the nation is in such deep political division. What appeals to half the country is bound to offend the other half. And as Pepsi learned, an ad can even offend the half it was targeted toward.

Trump voters seethed after the Super Bowl, recognizing the not-so-subliminal anti-Trump messages in the commercials. Boycotts naturally ensued, as they have since the election. Consumers from both the left and right seek to punish companies for exposing their political leanings.

It seems like a dumb strategy for corporations to jump into the political and culture wars. For every customer gained, there’s one lost. I suspect most consumers still make their selections based on the quality of the goods, not sanctimonious messages in ads. They want to know how the car drives, how the soap cleans.

Pepsi had to pull its Jenner ad after one day because of the backlash, and hopefully has learned to stay in its lane. Better to revive the good old Pepsi/Coke taste challenge.