Who signed that Pepsi advert off?
I would have loved to be in the boardroom when the concept of Pepsi’s infamous protest ad was pitched. It probably went something like this:
Creative: Guys, I think I’ve got it! Okay..we’ve got Kendall Jenner!
Execs: Yeah? Go on
Execs: Oh! Controversial, yeah, go on…
Creative: Police line
Execs: Can we go there? Go on…
Creative: Kendall gives the police a can of Pepsi. Everyone dances!
Execs: Oh my God! Genius!! Let’s do this.
Why didn’t anyone stop that Pepsi advert? When the treatment was developed, why didn’t anyone say, “Guys, perhaps we should rethink this?” When the filming of the most milquetoast protest in history was ongoing, why didn’t anyone pipe up and say “I feel uneasy about this”. When the final film was made, didn’t anyone stand up and say “We can’t put this out”?
For the life of me, I don’t understand how in today’s climate, anyone would have approved this concept, let alone watched the final product and allowed it to be released. That ad was the epitome of tone deafness. I’m shocked that a behemoth like Pepsi with thousands of managers and lawyers didn’t stop this horror train before it came to its inevitable end.
I think the production of this ad is symptomatic of two things – one cultural, and the other societal. I’ll deal with the cultural one first.
I simply refuse to believe that the problems in that ad weren’t spotted by any of the creatives. What probably occurred was that those who felt it was problematic were afraid of telling their superiors that they were on the wrong course. This speaks to a culture of deference and timidity in Pepsi’s in-house creative team. They are probably encouraged to put their heads down and work hard. Boat-rocking or challenging colleagues is likely discouraged. This is an issue those of us in the creative industries are familiar with. How do you tell your boss their idea needs work? Or that their creative concept is dangerous? It’s never easy, but a culture that encourages radical honesty is necessary in the creative industry. Had that junior exec have felt able to pull their director aside and say “Hey, look, we shouldn’t go ahead with this ad as it is” Pepsi wouldn’t be in this mess.
The societal reason this piece of advertising fuckery was allowed to pass is a complex one. I’ll try and be brief here.
I’ve seen a few tweets saying something along the lines of “this ad is what happens when there is no diversity amongst decision makers”, and I generally agree with the sentiment, but as I don’t know who was involved in the creation of the ad, I can’t speak to its accuracy. Based on experience, I’d say, it’s probably true.
However, we shouldn’t act like the wrongness of co-opting protests to sell cola can only be understood by black folks or marginalised groups. Cultural literacy is as important as diversity. By cultural literacy, I mean the thorough and studious intellectual engagement with the issues of the day – from world politics to contemporary discussions on gender, race, sexuality and more. Too often, I see “diversity initiatives” being used as an excuse for groups in a societal advantageous position to disengage with the injustices of the world. The thinking goes – the token black/woman/gay person will deal with the ‘diversity’ discussion and we can all carry on living our lives. When the Women’s March or Black Lives Matter or Trans issues are framed as solely ‘minority issues’ we shouldn’t be surprised that a straight white male might feel like he doesn’t have skin in the fight. Only when we realise that all injustices erode our collective freedom and humanity would we witness a sea change in meaning and purpose of diversity.
So yes, boardrooms need to be diverse because they should reflect reality. Yes, the many structural obstacles that prevent ‘minority’ groups from getting in positions of power need to be dismantled. But, let’s remember that without genuine intellectual engagement with the issues we face, these problems will continue to arise.
It’s very likely that if Pepsi had a diverse group of people in the decision making chain this ad would never have been produced, but..really…do you need a black guy to tell you this?