Pepsi Banking Off Social Justice Protests

My last post was about the recent Gillette ad campaign. I went back and forth in how to organize it. Originally, I tried to draft listicle of my opinions on different controversial ads, but I realized the readers would see it as too lengthy and scattered.

Rather than jumbling all the ads in one post, I’ll split them up into a series.


Social tension seemed to consume the later Obama years. Black Lives Matter grew in prominence in wake of racial police shootings and subsequent protests. Some of those recent demonstrations turned violent, like the 2015 Baltimore riot.

Reaction to alleged police brutality varied as waves of emotion spread across the country. People found it difficult to engage in healthy dialogue with the media and culture very polarized.

Activist seemed to jump to conclusions, while others defended the process. Sometimes the actual narrative got lost.

We’ll always have discussions around racial profiling for police. Although, hopefully now body cams and the age of social medias allows greater accountability.   

Understanding that context, we can discuss the next controversial ad.

Reaction: Kendall Jenner Pepsi Protest Ad

In 2017, the Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial aired. The celebrity watches a protest and decides to join in on the demonstration. She rallies a musician, dancers, and a photographer as she approaches the police line to offer a Pepsi. The policeman accepts the soft drink, gulps it down, and everyone’s happy.

The media blew up with complaints of the soda company trying to shamelessly profit off social injustice with a cringy mockery of it. The ad made a complex, emotionally-charged issue into something light and goofy. The model thought she could easily resolve everyone’s problem by sharing a Pepsi and smiling for the camera.

It also depicted a white model as the miraculous hero that unites a disorganized crowd. BLM and their supporters probably don’t see her as their symbol of reformation. I am not sure myself if the Jenner family is an icon on social progress; maybe spicy drama fits them more.

But the thing is… the commercial is not explicitly clear what the people are protesting. The media just assumed the ad showed a BLM related demonstration.

The crowd doesn’t appear angry or vocal at all. The scene more resembles a marching circus. The crowd is very diverse, not exclusively African Americans. And, they are all dressed like well off hipsters. It actually all feels like an ordinary scene from Miami Beach. If the people weren’t holding signs, I would hardly even recognize it as a protest.

Pepsi cans Kendall Jenner 2017

And what did these signs say? Nothing about race or even anything negative. At about time 1:41, you can see placards with peace signs and a few that read “start the conversation”. It’s very telling clue to help interpret… but it’s too brief of a flash. The focus is on the model and her connection to the crowd. She relates and inspires the artist, photographer, and dancers. But we don’t know why?

Pepsi appeared to stay on the safe side by teetered the line of controversy. They remaining ambiguous and lighthearted when that’s not reality.

The ad was also really long and had a wide set of underdeveloped characters. It would have been better with half the length in time and just a focus on one or two characters.  

Can Pepsi Solve Racism?

As you read through all the social media and YouTube comments about the Kendall Pepsi ad, you’ll notice the same question: what would actually happen if you hand a cop a Pepsi in the middle of a unruly protest?

Some claim the model would be assaulted by rubber bullets or pepper sprayed. We’d all like to believe the scenario would play out peacefully.

We all have common ground. Under the thick uniforms, the police are people that have to live with their decisions. I feel Pepsi could have had more success with serious tone that showed how our basic humanity unites us, not sugar drinks.

The idea was there; Pepsi did not execute the ad with clarity and it came off as cheap entertainment.

Then again, even if the ad presented a hopeful message in a tactful way, would anyone believe it? It’s still a commercial selling us Pepsi. The company would still be banking money off people’s sympathy around emotional protests.

It’s like if Hershey’s made a commercial with a poor cancer patient. The boy’s dying wish is one last bar of chocolate… And then, one morsel of the sugary treat cures his condition.

Similarly, the Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad shows soda magically solving racial tension. It’s offensive in that regard.

What can we solve racism? Probably not passing out cans of Pepsi.

Perhaps the real answer is manifold and too complicated for me to explain in a single post. Suffice to say, if everyone had mutual respect and understanding by living in close proximity, then the walls of separation wouldn’t exist. I think we don’t understand each other because we avoid what we don’t know. We should get to know each other.

We would see that we really aren’t that different. Maybe we both equally hate Pepsi.

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About the Author: Jonathan Crow

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