Several days ago, America’s second favorite cola brand, Pepsi, opened itself up to a barrage of ridicule after it released a cringe-inducing ad that trivialized the feelings of political despair that are so rampant across the Western world right now by using them as a hook to sell a product that makes people fat and ruins their teeth.
In the ad, we see reality TV star-turned-model, Kendall Jenner, walk out in the middle of a photoshoot to go join up with a group of photogenic protesters marching for some ambiguous cause. They eventually reach a police cordon, but rather than being beaten, pepper-sprayed and arrested like protestors oftentimes are in the real world, Ken-Jen wins the cops over by offering them a can of Pepsi. Smiles sweep over the protestors faces and the crowd erupts into a joyous symphony of hugs and laughter and high-fives as if they’re “partying at the VIP enclosure at Coachella,” to quote The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson.
It was lazy, shameless, vulgar, and only marginally more morally acceptable than rifling through the pockets of the deceased at an open casket funeral for change so you can buy yourself a Pepsi. Less than 24 hours later, Pepsi announced that it would be pulling the ad, issuing a groveling apology to the world and also, bizarrely, to Kendall Jenner: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position,” the company told the Associated Press.
Let’s take a moment to note that Pepsi CEO, Indra Nooyi, sits on Trump’s business advisory council. Where was her message of “unity, peace and understanding” when The Donald tried to bar U.S. green card holders from the country because of their origins? This is as tasteless as a flat Pepsi Max.
The fact is that Pepsi wasn’t really “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” it was trying to make money off of the suffering and injustice that drives people to protest and the brutalization that they often endure when they do. In the day or so since the ad first appeared, I’ve seen people try explain it away as an example of “bad advertising,” but I would disagree with that sentiment – this isn’t bad advertising, it’s advertising in it’s purest form: parasitic, exploitative and devoid of any cultural value.
Commercial advertising exists for one purpose: to increase the profits of the brand that commissioned it, be that through direct sales or recognition or whatever else. Everybody knows this, which is why most people make a concerted effort to cocoon themselves from marketing by downloading adblockers or going to the toilet to avoid commercial breaks. The only people that I’ve ever met who actively choose to consume advertising usually work in the industry themselves.
Most people feel this way, which is why brands and ad agencies have to think up deceitful narratives hidden in global messages of “unity, peace and understanding,” to hide the fact that they just want to take your money and truly couldn’t give a shit about anything else. So why are people getting so disproportionately angry at Pepsi? How is it any different to Dove’s award-winning “Real Beauty” ads?
Whereas Pepsi co-opted civic struggle, Dove played on women’s insecurities about oppressive beauty standards in an effort to sell moisturizer. The execution might have been subtler, but its essence is no less rotten.
I think the real reason why everybody was so outraged by the aforementioned Pepsi commercial—aside from the sheer indecency of using protests as a marketing device, of course—is because the brand was caught treating us like idiots, but the fact is that every other advertisement does exactly the same.
A certain code of silence exists between the public and advertisers, where we ignore the fact that we’re being manipulated because we’d like to think we're too smart to fall for such flagrant bullshit. But the fact is we’re not; the marketing industry has turned coercion into a science. They know exactly which buttons to press to make us fall for a product that’s fundamentally no different to countless others on the market. Pepsi’s real fuck up was breaking that unspoken agreement and turning our attention to what we usually try so hard to ignore.
It’s funny: In the ad, Pepsi’s protesters are carrying signs that read “join the conversation.” I’m not sure which conversation they were on about, but realistically I doubt that they do either, so let me put one on the table: I say we stop pretending. Let’s call advertising out for what it really is: a visual pollutant that degrades us all and makes the world uglier. Let’s talk about it at every opportunity we get to anybody that will listen. Because the longer that we stay silent, the longer we’ll have to endure being spoofed steaming turds like this one.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.