By Evan Siegel
Last week, Pepsi put up a brand-new ad featuring Kendall Jenner. The ad featured the multimillionaire glamorously sauntering away from a photoshoot, joining a nondescript, sanitary-looking protest, somehow finding an icy Pepsi in a cooler at this protest, then valiantly walking up to a wholly unintimidating line of policemen to hand one said Pepsi. Following the symbolic Pepsi exchange, the police officer shrugs and smiles, Kendall laughs, and the crowd cheers, waving around their identical, Pepsi-colored picket signs and dancing to herald the new Pepsi utopia.
The ad saw heavy criticism almost instantaneously, and was so controversial that Pepsi took it down within less than a day, issuing a formal apology through Twitter. Beyond the commercial’s confusing premise, most critics lambasted Pepsi’s clumsy depiction of protests, showing people dancing around and smiling with police officers and celebrities instead of doing any protesting.
Now, while it’s fun to pick apart Pepsi’s misguided attempt at being culturally and socially conscious, it’s equally as important to recognize that Pepsi’s ad is just one of many, many flubbed ads that attempted something similar. As it stands, major corporations in the United States have an incredibly hard time creating advertisements that resonate with people, instead making bizarre or outright ignorant creative choices that end up being more ridiculous than relatable.
Where does one even begin? Budweiser, as last year’s election ramped up, put out an ad campaign that tried to say that we’re all living in the same country and drink the same beer, so why do we have racial divides? And earlier this year, the beer company also put out a pro-immigration Super Bowl ad that elicited a lot of bitter anti-immigrant rhetoric, and not a whole lot else. Cadillac ran an ad in 2014 that essentially called other countries lazy and talked about how Americans are dependable workers because we’re much more materialistic. Fiverr, a “freelance services marketplace” where people can take on odd jobs for money, put out a dystopian ad applauding people for working themselves ragged, featuring a tired-looking woman who, of the ad’s own admittance, is only running off of coffee and sleep deprivation.
Beyond the realm of TV ads and into the realm of social media, things only get worse. A while back, in 2011, Bing tweeted out a promised to donate money toward a relief fund for the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, but only if users retweeted the post; Bing would match the retweets $1 each. As the Arab Spring protests progressed in Cairo, designer Kenneth Cole sent out a tweet “joking” that the commotion was over his newest designs and not long-standing political unrest. DiGiorno unknowingly tweeted using a hashtag about domestic abuse, accidentally saying that you shouldn’t leave your abuser if they have pizza. These are also all only examples from Twitter; you can look on Facebook and YouTube for even more ad fumbles.
But, at the end of the day, these are all just advertisements, right? Who cares? Corporations may screw up, but is it worth it to get riled up about a few harmless ads?
The thing is, these advertisements are representative of a greater problem, and that’s the fact that corporations really don’t care about understanding everyday American problems. The world of advertising is more complicated than it appears, to be sure, but it’s also not difficult to pay attention to things online or see how people have reacted to ad campaigns in the past. Instead, inattentiveness gives us things like the Pepsi protest ad, where Pepsi saw that “protests” were trending and then failed to capture any of the political nuance that makes them genuinely important. Instead of revolution, we get Pepsi.
Additionally, many of these corporations advocating for peace and acceptance tend to be doing shady things behind the scenes that completely invalidate the messages they’re trying to send. Coca-Cola, despite its often-admired ads of people singing “America the Beautiful” in different languages, has been consistently accused of underpaying and underrepresenting minority workers and has financially supported apartheid in South Africa for a long time. Nestle, which sends out ads promoting healthfulness and harmony, blatantly steals water worldwide, depriving local communities of the resources they need to survive. Wal-Mart, which claims to represent good old family values, cares little about its employees and used to take out life insurance policies on them so it could profit off their deaths.
Ultimately, the point here is that these aren’t “just commercials.” They’re clear signs that these powerful companies are disconnected., They see everyday struggles as ways to cash in and up demand for products. Protests have been everywhere in the news recently, and Pepsi couldn’t even get that right. If corporations want to start appealing to their consumer bases in meaningful ways, they have to understand what’s meaningful to people in the first place and join the conversation.