This week Pepsi launched an ad conceived from the Socially Conscious Ad Playbook, taking on a politically charged topic in a commercial featuring reality star Kendall Jenner. Many brands have recently aligned their advertising using current events or political movements – the Oscars and the Super Bowl featured many ads with political themes. However, Pepsi’s ad set off an immediate and intense social media firestorm, and strong product backlash.

Pepsi’s ad portrays Jenner leaving a photo shoot to join some sort of protest march. Along the ways she fist bumps and high-fives groups of other attractive millennials. At the end of the spot, she faces a line of police (sans riot gear) and hands an attractive officer a Pepsi.  The officer smiles, and everyone cheers.

My initial thought after seeing the spot (besides, “Seriously?!”) was the iconic flower child ad from Coca Cola in the 70’s. Remember all the happy folks singing “I’d like teach the world to sing, I’d like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company…”?  Pepsi was clearly trying to create a ‘modern version’ of that spot by using a millennial celebrity and putting a ‘fun spin’ on young people’s activism and desire to change the world.

Missing The Mark

Criticism was quickly leveled at how the spot trivialized real activism and the actual experiences of protesters in social justice movements. Social media erupted with outrage and sarcastic memes suggesting ‘everything could have been different if only protesters had had a Pepsi’, paired with actual photos from real (violent) protests.

Even industry pros were stunned at the campaign’s poor execution, noting that using protest imagery to sell a soft drink is WAY off the mark.  77% of digital content engagement around the phrase “tone-deaf” mentioned both Kendall Jenner and Pepsi, according to marketing technology company Amobee,

Backlash was so intense that after initially standing by the ad, Pepsi pulled it within a day, and issued a statement and apology:

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further roll-out.”

Advertiser Takeaway: Tread Carefully

Trying to capitalize on a social movement for a marketing campaign, or using social causes to promote your brand is viewed by most consumers as disingenuous. Unless your business or product is completely aligned with the movement, your audience will see through this tactic if it’s not thoughtfully and carefully executed.

(And yes, there IS such a thing as ‘bad publicity’… ask Pepsi!)