Why Pepsi’s Protest Ad with Kendall Jenner was a Marketing Fail

The Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner sought to reach millennials at an emotional level, but just ended up inciting criticism and disgust.

In case you don’t know, Kendall Jenner is a popular reality TV star and model, who stars in this ad. Take a look:

Let’s break down what happened.

People are marching on the street in protest. Individuals of various artsy backgrounds go to join them. Kendall Jenner is doing a photo shoot, and as they pass by, they invite her to join. She wipes off her makeup, instantly changes her clothes and joins them on the march. It’s a diverse group of young, good looking people having fun protesting.

They get to a police barricade, where Kendall Jenner walks up to a police officer and hands him a Pepsi. He drinks it and everyone in the protest starts celebrating.

What Went Wrong with Pepsi’s Ad?

From the surface, it looked like a well-executed ad. It had all the right elements:

  • Young, good looking people
  • Diverse people
  • Famous person
  • Short storyline
  • Connection to current events

But the backlash that broke out on Twitter showed that the ad was a huge failure that would be mocked for a while.

So what went wrong?

Pepsi was trying to use emotional marketing to reach their target demographic. This is pretty normal and is often effective. They had all the right elements, but connected them in all the wrong ways.

Here is where Pepsi went wrong in their Kendall Jenner protest ad, and some lessons that we can learn from them.

Good Things Don’t Necessarily Go Good Together

This ad proves that simply mixing things that are good by themselves will result in something good together.

Burgers are good. Pizza is good. Apple pie is good. But blending them together in a smoothie is not good.

We love soda. And we love movements and causes. But those don’t have any relation.

Connecting a product to a bigger concept isn’t bad. Pepsi can’t just market that it tastes good. It needs to be connected to a feeling. But a protest is not the right feeling.

Coca Cola recently made a commercial as well that addressed social issues, and it was deemed a success.

So why did Coke succeed and Pepsi fail, despite both making an attempt to connect with social/political issues?

Avoid Social/Political Topics

As a general rule, companies should just avoid any serious topic completely. Many have tried and failed, and only a few have succeeded.

Remember any of these blunders?

Digiorno Pizza unknowingly used a hashtag about domestic violence.

Starbucks attempted to have a conversation with their customers about race.

Miracle Mattresses makes fun of 9/11 with its “Twin Tower Sale.”

When a company does marketing, they’re trying to sell a product. Customers know that and are fine with it.

Yet when companies jump into serious discussions, it’s still marketing. To use a serious issue as a way to expand your brand or feature a product ends up being insensitive, offensive, and distasteful.

Why Was Pepsi’s Ad Offensive?

Here’s how Pepsi’s ad came across as offensive and ended up getting criticism from the very market target market they were trying to connect with.

The ad shows a generic protest in which people are all laughing and having fun. There were a lot of protests in the past year, and they were anything but fun.

From the Muslim-ban protests at airports to the protests at Trump rallies to the Black Lives Matter protests (from which this ad imitates) – there is a lot of anger, frustration, tension, and often violence and arrests. Not to mention the multiple protests around the world against corrupt governments, which have resulted in imprisonment and death.

Basically, protests aren’t parties, as depicted in the ad.

Secondly, the ad ends Kendall Jenner handing the police officer a Pepsi, something that everyone cheers and a photographer captures.

It trivializes the moment that it is imitating, in which an iconic photo was taken of a woman standing calmly as riot police rush to arrest her during the Baton Rouge protests in 2016.

It also degrades all the pain, suffering, work and sacrifice that people have endured in protests and in the history leading up to protests, by playfully showing how Pepsi suddenly resolves all conflict.

This is not to mention all the other minor blunders throughout the ad, such as the token use of a Muslim woman, the casualness of people joining the protest, and Kendall Jenner being the hero of the movement despite her reality star reputation being completely disconnected from any social cause (and in many cases, the antithesis of social causes).

So Why Did Coca Cola Succeed?

Coca Cola also stepped into dangerous territory. And there was definitely criticism of their ad. But the difference is the majority of that criticism was ideological and political, not so much against the appropriateness or sensitivity of the ad.

The biggest difference between the Pepsi ad and the Coke ad was the tone. Coke addressed a serious issue – racism and immigration in the US. It showed scenes of different types of people drinking coke, with the message that we all share the similar everyday life moments of eating and drinking. It kept the tone solemn but inspirational. They were making a very specific statement and kept it serious – America is beautiful because of its diversity, and we’re all Americans.

On the other hand, Pepsi created a mock protest about generic peace and love. It didn’t address any specific issue, but rather lumped everything together and generalized the protests. It also took a serious issue and made it into a fun summer party in which a celebrity solves the problem by sharing a soda.

The difference is that one uses their product as the backdrop to communicate a serious message, while the other takes a serious issue and uses it as a trivial backdrop to feature their product.

Lessons for Brand Marketing

A lot of time, money, and planning went into this ad, but it ended up being a failure.

Yet as we’ve seen in the other examples, a mistake as simple as a tweet can have big ramifications for a company’s image.

This doesn’t mean you should be afraid of marketing and always play it safe. In order to stand out, you do need to experiment and create something truly unique, creative, emotional, and even edgy.

But there is a line when is comes to serious social issues.

It’s one thing to take a social/political stance as a company, such as all the tech companies that made a firm stance opposing the Muslim ban. But it’s a different and inappropriate thing to use social issues and events as playful backdrops to selling a product.

The larger marketing application is that the company tried to connect with a target market, but ended up driving them away. I’m not sure what happened in all those board meetings, but either the commercial was developed without any input from millenials, or top executives ignored the criticisms raised.

If you want to connect with your target market, you have to know your target market.

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