Pepsi made the buzz for all the wrong reasons this week with its “Join the conversation” ad featuring Kendall Jenner as a top model-turned-social healer. In face of the massive backlash it faced on social media, the American multinational finally pulled out the controversial ad and released this statement:
“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 pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
That no one at Pepsi thought for a moment that there was something insensitive and utterly inappropriate in the scenario of this ad, in its use of Black Lives Matter references, and in the starring of Kendall Jenner – a young woman whose private and public life couldn’t be more disconnected from the plight of millions of young, impoverished and marginalized Americans – is simply baffling, all the more so in the context of the current, Trumpian administration. There is of course nothing new in companies trying to capitalize on social movements for mercantile aims (one can remember how, as early as last Fall, Toronto store Serpentine appropriated Black Lives Matter to promote Black Friday sales). Yet this particular ad is particularly interesting in that the supposedly “global message of unity, peace and understanding” it stages is all but that. Instead, it promotes a white privileged, Americanocentric vision of diversity that is altogether sweetened, edulcorated, trivialised, and ultimately totalitarian. This is visible not only in what it shows – and this is certainly what has attracted the most attention by viewers – but also in what it doesn’t show.
First, this is not a protest! The march featured in the ad is a staged street-party and the police are simply safeguarding and protecting citizens, so-called equal participants of a shared conversation. The policemen are, well, men. They are young, they are good looking, and the Pepsi-drinking one seems somewhat happy to have an opportunity to flirt with a member of the Kar-Jenner clan. All references to the real militarization of police forces, a phenomenon that is on the rise in the USA and elsewhere in the world, are absent: No massive number of officers, only one helmet in sight, no combat unit, no arm in hands, no tear gas tanks, no water hoses, no horses, no tanks. As for the marchers, they are all young, happy, and seemingly free. In short, they seem to be en route for Coachella more than participants in a politically-charged march. One almost feels like casually quoting Voltaire’s “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.
In the light of the rise of social movements in and outside the USA that followed the 2009 economic crisis, and in the light of the massive protests that have been staged recently against police violence and Trump’s regime, how much more out of touch can an advertisement be and how much more naive can the Pepsi commercial-makers be in assuming that people would embrace this supposedly feel-good ad? If anything, it has served to alienate young citizens (visibly its target audience) of today who actually consider themselves political and who may have participated in a protest. The thing is, protests are becoming a more common feature of our life – whether we watch them online and on tv, participate in them, or know someone who does – and as such become good material for advertising campaigns, whose main aim is profit and not social justice (references to Mad Men’s Don Draper by some of the ad’s critics are right on point in that regard). Another recent example that comes to mind is Chanel’s Spring 2015 Protest runway, which took place in 2014. Presented as a feminist act, the show, created by Chanel’s designer Karl Lagerfeld, did also face some backlash, but not to the extent Pepsi’s ad did. Importantly, apart from street fences, it did not feature references to police or coercive forces.
The Pepsi ad does also a good job at exploiting racial stereotypes: Easy clichés include the hard-working, sweaty Asian cello player, who is both passionate about music and persuaded by activism; the dancing black men, who portray the stereotype of hip-hop and street dance linked to blackness; Kendall’s black assistant, whom she throws her blonde wig at before joining the march; and the black and brown Muslim bodies that replace and simultaneously make conspicuously absent the Arab Muslim (this absence acts as a telling Freudian slip on the part of Pepsi). A particularly troubling character is the South-Asian looking, hijab-wearing photographer, whose main purpose in the ad is to convey the idea that Muslim young women are not defined by their veil. The current strength of this fetishizing trope in American culture, media, and advertisement has already been commented upon. Yet Pepsi also reinforces and invalidates this simplistic message in other ways: The photographer is the only individual in the whole ad whose religious affiliation is made clear (unless we assume that the black young man wearing a beige tunic and hat is a Muslim, in which case we’d have two identifiable Muslims vs no other identifiable member of religious communities), and she is also the only one with a ring on her marriage finger. Her character does not participate in the march. Rather, as she seems upset not to have any worthy picture in her studio, she hears the street rumour and runs outside in search of good photo opportunities. Her female, Muslim, married identities therefore both define her and strip her of complexity. As a photographer, she is able to exist and thrive as a witness – not an actor – of the protest.
What about the fact that the peace-making role is given to a white, wealthy, ultrafamous reality tv star-turned-supermodel who joins the walk towards its end, after she has been winked at by the Asian cello player? The ad, as well as the many hilarious memes it has generated, speak for themselves.
We’d like to draw a parallel between Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi performance and the famous 2004 Super Bowl’s Pepsi ad, which, contrary to the 2016 one, was – and still is – a hit. Set in a Roman amphitheater, it features Beyoncé, Pink, and Britney Spears. The three women play sexy-looking yet fiesty gladiators who, through a passionate rendition of Queen’s “We will rock you”, unite instead of fighting each other, thereby succeeding in turning the audience against the despotic emperor, who is played by Enrique Iglesias. The ad ends with the women throwing Pepsi cans at the cheering, toga-wearing crowd, while a lion pops up behind the fallen – and soon-to-be-devoured – despotic emperor.
Like the Chanel fashion show mentioned above, this ad aims at promoting a feminist message. While Karl Lagerfeld’s protest walk directly echoed French protest culture, the 2004 Pepsi ad layered feminism in historical (the Roman games; the despotic Roman emperor) and Orientalist (the sexy, exotic, female warrior) tropes. Both the 2004 and the 2016 ads share common narrative features: sexualized female heroin(s) played by world-known American stars; an instrumentalized crowd; a face-to-face with authority of which the heroin(s) comes out victorious; an uplifting tune from music legends (Queen/the Marley family). Why, then, did the 2004 ad become so successful why the 2016 one had to be pulled out? The answer may lie in the focus of the ad: In the 2004 one, the supreme heroins are the three gladiators. They lead the narrative from start to end. They are fierce, empowered, active. They, as their song, rock. They sing at the crowd, not at the emperor, who is relegated to a comic, disempowered role. In the 2016 one, the narrative revolves around the marchers. The photographer, the cello player, and Kendall Jenner join a movement that is already in full motion. The supermodel doesn’t share Beyoncé, Pink and Britney’s fierceness. Her role is a mute one. She does not say, scream, nor sing a single word. She does not contest nor resist authority. She does not fight for her life. And although she joins the march, the emphasis is put on her peaceful, almost flirtatious encounter with the policeman. Kendall’s character is not an empowered feminist, social, nor political activist (if she would have been, she wouldn’t have thrown her wig at her black, female assistant!). Rather, she represents white privilege, in all its obliviousness, naïveté, and patronizing glory.
What to make of all this? By reproduction these stereotypes and silencing these bodies, Pepsi alienated the true subject (the ‘protestor’) to a lifeless identity that is unrecognizable to itself. Also present is a level of exploitation and ontological impoverishment, as well as the denial of the realities of risk and violence usually involved in protests, where the police are armed to the teeth and ready to respond aggressively. The paradox of the advertisement is that in presenting protests as fun-loving and peaceful events where the police are open to sharing a can of Pepsi with the protestors, Pepsi presents the viewers with an appearance of recognition. However it is a false recognition, of co-operation, peace and hope, that denies the dehumanizing practices that commonly lead people to protest in the first place – where racism, sexism and subjugation are realities and not simply packaged as opportunities for getting together. The protesting bodies become capitalistic objects of marketing, as well as merchandise and tools in a logic of neoliberalism. That might be where the “global” in Pepsi’s ad lies.
Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani
Katherine Blouin is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Toronto
Girish Daswani is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto