Skip to main content

Marketing Lessons to be Learned from Pepsi’s Controversial Commercial

Pepsi controversial commercial
Photo Source: The Daily Beast

Usually, I wouldn’t bother writing about a failed advertising attempt. But, well, have you seen Pepsi’s latest commercial (which has subsequently been yanked)? It features model Kendall Jenner and makes light of the recent protests sweeping the nation, as well as civil rights movements throughout history.

How did a company like Pepsi manage to achieve all that in 2 minutes, 39 seconds? With heavy-handed branding and by making certain assumptions.

For awhile, Pepsi refused to apologize for the advert, saying that the company stood behind their message of inclusion. Uploaded to YouTube on Monday, April 3, 48 hours later the video had approximately 1.6 million views. There were five times as many downvotes as upvotes. People all over the Internet (particularly Twitter) have been absolutely merciless in their response.

Finally, on April 5, Pepsi pulled the ad. In a statement released the same day, the company said, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

The cardinal sins:

  1. The brand coloring is so over the top.
  2. The focus in entirely on the product.
  3. There are way too many over multi-cultural references.
  4. A white person saves the day…with a can of cola.

The bigger issue:

Soda companies try to sell to young consumers harder than any other type of company. But younger consumers are not looking for brands to lead them anywhere or to save the day. Few consumers are looking for this from a brand. So the larger takeaway from Pepsi’s ad is insights into what is and isn’t acceptable for a brand to do.

Let’s be honest, millennials are really not that hard to reach. There have literally never before been as many ways, platforms, and devices to reach them on. But time and time again, brands seem to use old strategies and play to stereotypes. Guess what? Millennials can smell the bullshit. This Pepsi ad is a prime example of a brand that does not know what’s going on; they simply aren’t in touch with their target audience.

What can marketers learn from this tone-deaf debacle?

Pepsi tried advertising to the younger, polarized audience but it did so spectacularly wrong. By attempting to use protest imagery to sell soda, the company trivialized Black Lives Matter and other movements that have brought protesters to the streets in recent years.

Seriously, we’re to believe in the peaceful power of Pepsi? I, and everyone else, am not buying it. So save yourself the viral backlash and do research.

Want to make a powerful ad? Do your market research and be authentic.
  • Consult people who have actually participated in recent protests. If you haven’t been on the front line yourself, you have no knowledge of what it’s like. Talk to the organizers, the protesters, and the educators so that you don’t come off completely unaware of the mindset and environment that your subject matter encompasses.
  • Never sell your product in a way that exploits the suffering of marginalized peoples. That one seems obvious but I’ll include it in this list of lessons anyways. Don’t make light of social issues. Trivializing the seriousness of human injustice and suffering – positing that a mere can of Pepsi can solve all the problems – won’t be received well.
  • Don’t attempt to dramatize a real event. Recreating something like a protest march in such an unrealistic way (why is everyone so gd happy?) misses the mark.
  • Be authentic! Don’t make false declarations such as suggesting your product has the power to unite.
  • Don’t include a Muslim woman simply as a symbol of diversity or prop.
  • Using a rich, able-bodied, cisgender white woman to represent the ‘hero of the people’ is just plain wrong. The goal is to relate to your audience, not alienate them.

Perhaps this whole thing is indicative of a larger issue in the advertising business: there are not enough people represented in leadership positions. There simply isn’t enough diversity. There must not be a lot of representation of race, gender, lifestyle, age et cetera. Or, and this might even be worse, the culture at Pepsi is one where employees don’t feel empowered to speak up, to voice their opinions. One should feel comfortable enough to say, for example, “Mr. Pepsi ad man, this advert is highly offensive and I don’t believe it will go over well with anyone. Here’s why….”

Many interpreted the scene in which Jenner walks up to a line of cops and hands one a soda – eliciting celebration from her fellow “protestors” – as a reference to Black Lives Matter, specifically to an image of Iesha Evans standing peacefully in the street as cops rushed at her during a demonstration in Baton Rouge last July. But the photo director Bjorn Charpentier has since said that the ad was inspired by an iconic image from a 1967 Vietnam War protest.


Regardless of the intent, the Pepsi ad sparked widespread backlash and united the Internet on one thing: just how shockingly awful the ad was. Next time your marketing team pitches an idea, don’t be afraid to point out if it seems in poor taste.

Pepsi has apologized and pulled the controversial ad but I just wanted to take a few moment to learn from the tone-deafness of this ad spot. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *