Oh, to be a fly on the wall at Pepsi HQ six months ago, where some of the world’s top-paid ad execs gathered together on beanbags and dreamed up the calamitous garbage they inflicted on the world this week.
What were they thinking? Did no one wince at the crassness of co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement to sell a can of fizzy pop? Did nobody pause when some fool (who I can only assume was on a serious sugar high) suggested casting one of the Kardashians to pout her way through a throng of protesters? And for God’s sake why didn’t anybody - the intern, the receptionist, the bloody cleaner for goodness’ sake - put up their hand when some whiz thought it would be ‘powerful’ to use a can of Pepsi as the emblem for peace? “Guys, it’ll be amazing. They’ll all cheer as Kendall hands her soda to a riot cop.”
Heads will roll. And deservedly so. But the (astonishing) fact is even the highest echelons of the Pepsi team were on board with this eyesore. On Tuesday, president Brad Jakeman tweeted he was “super proud” of this “awesome creative partnership” - a post he has now deleted. It has taken two days, the outrage of real life protest movements, gleeful mockery from late night chat show hosts and the ire of a heady number of columnists for Pepsi to back down and pull the ad. It “missed the mark” on this one apparently. Yeah, just a bit.
Don’t get me wrong, I can see what Pepsi was trying to do. Food and drink simply isn’t satisfied by the straight sell on ads any more. Finding it harder and harder to hold the attention of millennial spenders, all wildly distracted by one shiny flashing screen in each hand at all times, they’ve opted for ‘brand building’. Marketing speak for convincing consumers they’ve got it wrong. This isn’t just a simple drink, or snack, or supermarket ready meal - by buying it you’re actually part of a mission, or a mood, with your own unique identity.
And sometimes it works. Brilliantly, in fact. Maltesers did wonderful things for brand affections when it championed diversity and disabled actors in its genuinely funny 2016 ad campaign. Dove has elevated itself spectacularly above a pretty standard moisturiser with its ongoing focus on ‘real women’, of all shapes and sizes. And who can forget the John Lewis Christmas ad? If we so much as suspected a crass attempt to make us actually buy something in among the lonely penguins and Lily Allen soundtracks we’d be aghast.
But successful as this tactic can be, Pepsi has demonstrated (rather spectacularly) the dangers, too. Hand control to creative geniuses living in a big fat fizzy pop bubble and you could end up demolishing a brand’s reputation far quicker than you can build it.