Pepsi had a banner day on Wednesday. And by that, I mean they launched a terrible commercial replete with actual banners that read, “Join the conversation.” The ad, which has justifiably been ridiculed, mocked and reviled across the interwebs, is a great example of what happens when a brand takes a stand and it goes horribly, horribly awry.
Why did this particular ad strike such a nerve with consumers today? Why did we have such a visceral reaction to this specific ad, which was for something as innocuous as a soft drink? There’s plenty of bad creative out there to hate on. Why did we heave a collective “are you f—-king kidding me?” at this commercial in particular?
Here’s why: Consumers are woke. (Yes, I am using that term with at least some sense of irony). But we really are amidst a maelstrom of consumer outrage, passion, activism and energy the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1960s. (Or at least that’s what I hear about the 60s.) We, the people, in order to form a more perfect union… have decided that perhaps we will give a damn after all.
Just look what is going around us daily — we have a President whose favorite form of communication is Twitter and who routinely tells us that all news about him that is not positively glowing is fake. The New York Times is writing about suburban Democrats (mostly moms – “momocrats,” anyone?) in Atlanta who have mobilized a campaign to get a 30-year-old newbie elected to Congress in a district which has not gone Democrat is 37 years. Women mobilized after the presidential election to stage massive but peaceful protests all over the world. And we have brands—big brands—that have taken definitive political and social stands: Coke, Apple, Google, the New York Times, Lyft, hell, even UTA has gotten in on that action.
Pepsi knows all that. They’ve got the data. They’ve done the research. They know that this cultural tide of social activism and consciousness is sweeping the country. And maybe they simply wanted to recognize that and say “we get it… we feel ya…” Nothing wrong with that.
Except everything they did was wrong with that. This spot trivialized the issues and the beliefs that are driving social activism today. They took consumer and cultural insights and tried to spit back out a cookie-cutter example of their connection to this movement – but in a way that was, you know, not too partisan, not too political and definitely not too offensive. They borrowed powerful images from an emotional movement, Black Lives Matter, and used those images to sell soda. And they cast a symbol of elite white privilege, Kendall Jenner, as their star.
They did the research and had the data, but all they revealed is that they don’t understand this movement and thus have no authentic connection to it. And that’s where it all fell apart.
I believe brands can take a stand on political and social issues and do it successfully and with conviction. But that is what it takes: Conviction, authenticity and a sense of purpose. Taking a stand works when it is mission-driven — when it is part of the DNA of both the organization and of the brand. When a brand is taking a stand because that’s what its leadership truly believes, not because it looks around and sees that’s what its competitors are doing.
Here’s the hard truth: standing up for your beliefs may mean walking away from customers who don’t support that position. Brands who truly believe in their position know that and take a stand anyway. That’s what makes them brave.
And that’s why this offended so many people. There was no conviction and no meaning. There was nothing remotely authentic or brave in that message – except the authenticity of pure corporate pandering. That is what pissed off America about this spot, We the people took a look and then said, emphatically: “Pepsi, we are not your generation.”
Tricia Melton is the former SVP, marketing and brand for TNT, TBS, TCM. Melton also provides her marketing consulting services and wise counsel to PromaxBDA.