Well, That Was Quick: Pepsi Pulls Controversial Ad After One Day

Thom Weidlich 04.06.17


PepsiCo Inc. this week endured an embarrassing, if quick, crisis of its own making. It released a TV and digital ad campaign featuring model Kendall Jenner that kicked up a storm of controversy and ridicule. So much so that, after briefly trying to defend the spot, the company pulled it. It is yet another example of a company seemingly not thinking something through (or focus-grouping it) and therefore having a crisis on its hands.

The spot was released Tuesday, April 4. Called “Jump In,” it depicts Jenner (pictured) posing in a sleek, silver dress for a photographer. She becomes distracted by a nearby protest. The subject of the march is unclear, though some protestors hold peace signs. Jenner decides to quit her modeling duties and join the crowd. She whips off her blond wig and miraculously now wears jeans. Naturally, she drinks a Pepsi. Toward the end of the video, she hands the can to a stern-looking cop in a line of stern-looking cops. He sips the soda and smiles. The crowd cheers.

In an April 4 press release about the campaign, Pepsi explained that it’s part of its “Live for Now” project. The Purchase, New York, company said the spot, which was released in 2-minute-plus and 30-second versions, “captures the spirit and actions of those people that [sic] jump in to every moment. It features multiple lives, stories and emotional connections that show passion, joy, unbound and uninhibited moments.”

That’s not how a lot of people took it. Critics said it belittled both contemporary protests, including those by Black Lives Matter, and historic ones, such as the civil rights marches. Some said the shot of Jenner, who’s white, standing before the police line was eerily similar to an iconic one from last year, of African-American Ieshia Evans, in a flowing dress, protesting the killing by police of an African-American man in Baton Rouge.

‘Power of #Pepsi’

Twitter commenters were merciless:

“How nice of Kendall Jenner to stop in the middle of her photo shoot to end social injustices by giving that cop a Pepsi. MLK who? Rosa who?”

From Martin Luther King’s daughter Bernice: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

“The worst thing about that Pepsi ad, beyond the blatant disrespect and disregard, is the amount of people who greenlit that advertisement.”

That last point is an important one. Again, how much thought did Pepsi put into the possible reaction to the campaign? It certainly doesn’t seem it had holding statements ready. At first it strongly defended itself, albeit with a one-sentence statement: “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey.”

‘Tone Deaf’

The criticisms, and negative coverage, kept coming. A Washington Post headline: “Pepsi Tried Cashing In on Black Lives Matter With a Kendall Jenner Ad. Here’s How That’s Going.” Adweek: “Pepsi’s Tone-Deaf Kendall Jenner Ad Co-opting the Resistance Is Getting Clobbered in Social.”

Finally, at about 1:45 p.m. ET yesterday, Pepsi threw in the towel, tweeting (and posting on its website and distributing through PR Newswire) this message: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.” (Jenner herself has apparently been silent on the backlash.)

Obviously, we’re not privy to Pepsi’s thinking before unveiling the campaign Tuesday. But it seems pretty obvious the company can’t be accused of overthinking it. Or over-planning for any negative reaction. And planning is the essence of crisis communications.

Photo Credit: PepsiCo