Pepsi takes exploiting social justice too far
What Pepsi and Kendall Jenner did wrong and why they’re not the only ones
April 9, 2017
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Some say it’s the thought that counts. Others say the road to hell is paved with good intentions. But well intended or not, everyone – literally, almost everyone – is condemning Kendall Jenner’s recent tone-deaf, social justice-themed video ad for Pepsi.
The two-minute ad, which encouraged viewers to “Join the Conversation” among images of a street protest and stern-faced police officers, was so thoroughly mocked across the Internet that Pepsi retracted it the day after its launch.
The public’s dismissal of the ad’s trite take on the civil unrest of today proves how corporations like Pepsi are only interested in representing activists if it helps reel in revenue. However, Pepsi’s pseudo-aware ad did not fool the masses of consumers this time.
“Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize,” Pespi said in a statement. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.” It has also, interestingly enough, apologized “for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
Pepsi’s apology sanitizes Jenner’s role in the ad, making the fiasco out to be a case of “when bad ads happen to good people.” If Jenner truly believed she was contributing to something well-intentioned, it only serves to demonstrate her lack of knowledge on the cruelties of police brutality and racial profiling.
Even by the crowd of protesters — carefully selected for maximum diversity — you can tell Pepsi is trying to reel in millennials by homogenizing the myriad issues that make up today’s social justice movement. If not for the line of police figures positioned against the marchers in the ad — who allude to the increase in public resistance to police brutality and shootings since Michael Brown — you wouldn’t be able to tell what the protestors are so concerned about; they’re all carrying signs with vague phrases and symbols such as “Join the Conversation,” “Love,” and, of course, the good ol’ peace sign.
It does not take a Herculean effort to see the gross generalizations in the ad. Clearly, Jenner’s privilege fronts any form of awareness and she is able to play the part as activist, which diminishes the feats of real life activists who organize their lives around social justice movements. The thrill of being Pepsi’s new girl seems to have drowned out any critical thinking she might have engaged in.
As the ad’s protesters distract Jenner’s character from her photo shoot, and viewers are left wondering what the model its likely thinking. Perhaps, “Ah! This cushy supermodel life grows dull. What do you call this edgy, plebeian movement? I want in!”
And of course, the moment that launched a million memes: when a white girl handing a police officer a can of Pepsi magically breaks down centuries of struggle between law enforcement and the black community. She struts back to an appreciative crowd, protesters rejoicing and pumping their fists in the air. Who would have known that all it took to secure social justice was a carbonated drink?
The scene, conveniently captured by a photographer in token hijab, clearly evokes the image of Ieshia L. Evans, a black woman who stood defiantly but peacefully in front of several armored police officers at a police brutality protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in July 2016.
If Jenner were halfway-educated in the Black Lives Matter movement, she would be familiar with this iconic image by now – it’s been shared thousands of times online has become a symbol of pride and resilience for BLM. Considering the Jenners’ scope on social media and online visibility, she should also have realized how offensive it is for a highly privileged white woman to come so close to appropriating a viral image of a black woman resisting police brutality.
She’s a princess playing pauper for a day. When protesters go home to grieve for lost family members, she returns to film another episode of the Kardashians.
The ad comes down to marketing, of course. Soda has a history with banking on youth movements; Coca-Cola did it in 1971 with its “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad. Companies today are relying on a socially and politically conscious millennial consumer base to buy their products — but in bringing these issues into the mainstream, are they educating people or simply dumbing the movements down?
Companies hope to target a wide audience when trying to sell a product or service. It’s the nature of the advertising beast. But when something complex and controversial is trending, like most social justice movements, it needs to be watered-down, simplified and exploited to make it palatable to most people.
Third-wave feminism, for example, has been thoroughly simplified to give companies and websites readers, viewers and quick cash. Popular fast-fashion brands like Forever 21 churn out crop tops and t-shirts with phrases like “Feminist,” “Girl Boss,” and “Girl Power” stamped on them. Rather than educating girls about abortion or female genital mutilation, we sell them catchphrase items so they feel like they’re part of the movement. Meanwhile, the actual movement is undermined. Its values and goals have not been adopted into the mainstream — only its imagery has.
So many innocuous trends are open for advertisers to use as they please: fashion, beauty, popular media. What thought process is behind the choice to make the struggles of one of the most systematically oppressed peoples in our country into a lighthearted affair? To have a white supermodel stand in as a symbolic leader of their fight? To feed millennials the idea that social justice problems can be solved with two minutes and a can of soda?
Pepsi and Jenner might both have had good intentions. But when companies and wealthy influencers make half-baked attempts to get people to “join the conversation” — without providing specific information — they make it clear that their concerns are in money-making, not the movement.