Remember decades ago when Coke wanted to teach the world to sing?
Pepsi just made it groan.
Full disclosure before I get started: I’m a Midwestern 40+ year old white guy with seven kids who lives in the ‘burbs. That makes me uniquely qualified to talk about some experiences and represent certain products. There would be an air of authenticity if I were hired as the spokesperson for, say, Weber grills. I have a backyard, I like meat cooked over fire, I enjoy hanging out with friends and family.
Why do I mention all this when talking about the Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner? Because authenticity is where Pepsi missed the mark. What someone forgot is that millennials, and Americans in general, relate to authenticity. Sure, they’ll “follow” Kendall Jenner and other celebrities, but they’re just as happy to see them fail as they are to see them succeed. Social media follows do not equate to true relationships or admiration. The other thing they forgot is that people who protest things are usually passionate about them. You can debate whether that passion is misguided or worthwhile, but it is passion nonetheless. And passionate people don’t necessarily like to have their work or ideologies co-opted for profit and product placement.
A quick look at Pepsi’s demographics in this recent Fortune article shows that both Pepsi and Coke are having trouble reaching millennials. Pepsi much more so than Coke. So Pepsi needs those consumers so it can stay viable and relevant. That need drove some big assumptions and what was clearly a fatal leap in logic. One obvious assumption was that millennials view protests as dance parties attended by beautiful, thin, talented people who may also happen to be from some disenfranchised minority. Another obvious assumption was that because Kendall Jenner has 77.8 million Instagram followers she would be a great representative for social justice by simply wiping off her lipstick and pulling off her wig. The final revolt against common sense was the assumption that blatant product placement could ever feel natural amongst a generation that doesn’t really drink Pepsi.
Even the execution misses. The reggae song, the seemingly apathetic and non-threatening police, the activist photographer who is somehow surprised by the giant protest going by her door, the bogus sense of bravery with Ms. Jenner’s action. She is seemingly under no threat of violence, physical or verbal. Her action seems more flirtatious and self-aggrandizing. She gets cheers and high fives without ever facing risk. This is not the “Free Hugs” guy breaking the ranks of protesters to reach out and embrace the perceived enemy and thereby risking both getting arrested or shot by law enforcement or getting a beatdown by protesters for being a traitor. This is a person from a family known for endorsing anything at the right price getting the opportunity to play at being a social justice warrior while throngs of attractive youths cheer her on.
And therein lies the issue. Pepsi unintentionally trivializes the passion, the culture, and the visceral connection felt by people willing to go to extremes, to actually really risk something, for change. Reality is sacrificed in favor of reality television. It’s ideological gentrification masquerading as a movement without even a hint of understanding.
Maybe Pepsi should take a hint from their erstwhile competitor. People really do prefer the real thing.