Social Issues And Pepsi: An Unpalatable Mix


This week, in response to a considerable amount of public criticism and mockery, Pepsi has removed its highly-publicized Kendall Jenner advertisement from rotation. Following its decision, an official statement was released with a general public apology to those offended by the commercial’s content. However, with a good portion of their statement focused on an apology to Jenner, it would appear the company has left itself vulnerable once again.

For those unfamiliar, Pepsi’s commercial runs just over two and a half minutes in length, stylizing itself as a public service announcement with a number of clear brand plugs throughout. In a nutshell, the video follows people rioting in the streets while making sure to highlight their diversity be it gender, race or religion. What exactly is being protested remains unknown, but ‘Peace’ signs can be spotted throughout the crowd as Pepsi’s generalized approach of tackling issues happening around the world today. As for Jenner, who remains a voyeur for the majority of the video, her moment comes at the end where (with an almost Bernie-Boston-Flower-Power air) Jenner passes a can of Pepsi to a police officer as an act of unity. Simple enough, right?

While Pepsi insists it came from the best of intentions, their message was missed as thousands of people took to the internet to protest the new advertisement. Immediately following its air, the ad received a high degree of criticism for its tone and attempts to appeal to such causes as Black Lives Matter or the more recent Women’s Marches happening around the world. Pepsi has stated that the company “was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding”; however, judging from the public reaction, the message was overshadowed by the label’s use of product placement.

“If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi” reads a tweet from Bernice King, accompanied by a photo of her father, Martin Luther King Jr., being held back by police officers while protesting in the streets. Besides the serious criticism, the issue (like many these days) has also lent itself to a slew of memes, depicting protest with an ironic reassurance that everything can be solved with a can of Pepsi. Certain journalists, such as Ronan Farrow and Piers Morgan, have also chimed in, condemning the advertisement. “The inoffensive generic protest signs in Pepsi’s woke Kendall Jenner ad are hilarious,” wrote Farrow, while Morgan called the piece an, “Absurd, PC-crazed, virtue-signalling, snowflake claptrap.”

Perhaps the lesson to be learned from this controversy is that social issues might not be the best topic for large corporations such as Pepsi to capitalize on. Yes, they are undeniably current and relevant around the world, but at the end of the day, regardless of its framing and pace, this was not a public service announcement: it was a commercial. The key issue behind many (if not all) of the real-life problems targeted in this advertisement is marginalization; ironically, this is exactly what Pepsi’s video did to many people. In its generic fashion, it tried to appeal to whatever cause is dear to you and plug a product. In theory, the basic message about unity and acceptance is a positive one; however, this incident is a good example of when and where it is appropriate to address these agendas.

Wyatt Lang

Wyatt Lang

A graduate from Carleton University's School of Journalism, Wyatt Lang is a Canadian correspondent for the OWP.
Wyatt Lang