Pepsi fails in its effort to ‘teach the world to sing’

By Virginia Postrel

Bloomberg View

Controversial image from the YouTube video titled, “Pepsi, Live For Now Moments Anthem” starring supermodel Kendall Jenner.
Controversial image from the YouTube video titled, “Pepsi, Live For Now Moments Anthem” starring supermodel Kendall Jenner. Pepsi Global via YouTube

The Pepsi Generation is old and gray and the company that gave birth to it just got a sharp reminder that the appeal of saccharine soda ads is dead.

At issue is a short-lived new commercial starring model Kendall Jenner, a member of the Kardashian clan, along with a large crew of telegenic millennials of assorted races and creative professions.

One, a handsome Asian cellist, leaves his studio to join a swelling protest march. He catches Jenner's eye as he passes by the photo shoot she's posing for. In response, she strips off her blond wig, wipes off her lipstick, and – having paid homage to the glamour of authenticity – joins the crowd.

As she strides down the street, she grabs a Pepsi and hands it to one of the young, handsome, and un-armored policemen standing guard over the march. A gorgeous photographer wearing a hijab snaps her picture. Peace, love, and understanding prevail.

Once upon a time, it might have worked.

Back in the day of hippies and mythical admen, a soda brand could score with feel-good commercials that flattered viewers for being young and idealistic.

It could sing of Pepsi People who made drinking the also-ran cola an act of freedom and self-assertion: “Free to choose a new way, free to stand up and say, you be you and I'll be me.”

It could evoke the happy image of a harmonious society of peace, love, and understanding without getting pummeled by activists or cynics – in part because they had no media power.

Today, however, the target audience wants to scream, vomit, or tweet nasty comments. Very different from 1971 when Coca-Cola, Pepsi’s rival, launched its most famous “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing,” campaign song, which also featured young people singing on a mountain top.

“Pepsi and Kendall Jenner Co-opt the Resistance to Sell You Soda,” proclaimed ELLE.com in a widely quoted post. Jaya Saxena wrote that “there are so many problematic moments here, it would take thousands of words to unpack them all,” but she focused on the image of Jenner handing the Pepsi to the cop.

To the Pepsi Generation, Jenner's action evokes the image of a Vietnam War protestor putting a flower in the barrel of a soldier's gun.

Those too young to remember the Carter administration, however, are buying Saxon's charge it's a crass repurposing of the photo of Black Lives Matter protester Ieshia Evans standing straight, proud, and elegant as police in riot gear arrest her. As Amy Zimmerman wrote in the Daily Beast:

Whether subconsciously or deliberately, Pepsi is trying to replicate the poignancy of that striking photo: one woman, alone and unafraid, stepping forward to face a legion of heavily armed police officers.

Because, at the end of the day, what's the difference between a white model in a national ad campaign and a black activist putting her body on the line in peaceful protest? KendallJennerMatters, everyone.

Whatever the inspiration, it was a faux pas. Just two days after the release, Pepsi pulled the ad.

The faux pas was perhaps inevitable for Pepsi. This is, after all, a company that preaches health food while making its money on salty snacks. It's desperately trying to be something it isn't.

No wonder its internal agency created an appeal to authenticity and youth so obviously inauthentic and old-fashioned.

Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was the editor of Reason magazine and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, the New York Times and Forbes.

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