Stephen Jardine: Advert disaster leaves bitter taste for Pepsi

Kendall Jenner in a Pepsi cola advert
Kendall Jenner in a Pepsi cola advert
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If you want to see the worst food and drink TV commercial ever made, you’d better hurry up.

At this moment the giant Pepsi Corporation is probably combing the internet to try to expunge every last trace of their disastrous new promotion starring celebrity model Kendall Janner.

The advert shows shiny, smiling, young people demonstrating and demanding a “conversation”. It ends with Kendall Jenner breaking away from a photo shoot and pushing through the throng to present a handsome young policeman with a can of Pepsi. In isolation, it seems inoffensive if a bit simplistic and vacuous but the problem is context. Last year there were violent disturbances on the streets of some American cities after police officers were implicated in the unlawful killing of black people.

The image of Jenner seems to echo a photo of a young black woman confronting heavily-armed police after a man was shot. With one ad, Pepsi made itself as popular as Donald Trump would be walking down the main street of Tijuana. Social media is a great barometer for brands. Most yearn to go viral with their latest campaign. The opposite of that is when something dreadful sparks an international backlash and hate storm and so it was with this.

The globally ridiculed advert was launched on Tuesday evening but was no longer accessible less than 24 hours later in the face of an avalanche of criticism.

Just when Pepsi must have thought it couldn’t get worse, someone spotted the advert was released on the 49th anniversary of civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s assassination. The next day his daughter joined the fray, posting a photo of her father with the message, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

That way global brands are destroyed.

But how could something so crass and insensitive ever have made it into the public space? You would have thought at some such stage someone in the process would have said “hang on a minute”, but then Pepsi have history when it comes to being culturally tone deaf. Four years ago the drinks giant had to withdraw an advert which at the time was dubbed “the most racist commercial in history”. It showed a white female assault victim trying to identify her attacker from a line-up featuring five black men and a goat. Clearly the brand doesn’t learn from it’s mistakes but it is good at apologising.

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark and we apologise,” the corporation said. The campaign has now been dropped.

To get the approach wrong once is a mistake but to twice spark a global furore indicates a fundamental failure to understand what consumers find acceptable.

Brands like Pepsi are desperate to capture a youth audience.

Back in 1971 Pepsi’s biggest rival launched the definitive racially inclusive advert with their Teach The World To Sing campaign which united people regardless of creed or colour. Nearly 50 years on it looks like Pepsi may have made the advert of the year – for Coca Cola.