Pepsi: the appropriation of brutality

Every so often, an advertisement reminds me the potential for advertising to really question perceptions of the world around us. Which today, thanks to Pepsi, it did. Except that it was to question how wayward and naive the creators were in modelling a protest – an imperative, but often biting, collaboration of people banding against discrimination.

Initially, the cynic in me reassured myself that Pepsi know what they were doing – creating an advert of this nature would get everyone talking. And it has, make no mistake – but we should not only question but be deeply concerned with a multi billion-dollar corporation with a global reach that creates an advert as troubling as this.

If you haven’t seen it, the premise of the three-minute ad was, according to Pepsi, a ‘global message of peace, unity and understanding’. Model Kendall Jenner throws off a blonde wig, wipes off her lipstick and walks off a shoot upon seeing a protest outside, complete with placards urging others to ‘Join the Conversation’. She joins the group before handing a patrolling police officer a can of Pepsi, presumably a kind of simpering stoic peace offering that is supposed to unite humanity at large.

The whole production is hideously overworked and cheesy just on a superficial level, but aesthetics aside, it is also deeply offensive to the point where I can’t believe it was allowed to go ahead.

The dust from the recent protests against police brutality toward African American communities in Baltimore, Ferguson, Baton Rouge and many other cities shows no signs of settling, and to convey an important and necessary grassroots movement as trivially as Pepsi did is so unsettling. In the ad Jenner, after making eyes with an attractive minority cellist, is prompted to join in events. Which would be ok, given that protests do work on a process of word-of-mouth and reaching out to people of all backgrounds. But Jenner, the white, privileged millionaire, simply nips right in jovially at the centre of the action at the last instance, singlehandedly appeasing the police line up, to cheers and applause. This is completely defamatory to the tens of thousands of black protesters in America who have toiled as a collective for decades to be heard, paying to the ends for such protesting – often with their lives.

In addition, there are succinct parallels between Jenner’s stance at the police front line and the actions of Ieshia Evans, with a photograph of her that was widely reported in 2016, after the Baton Rouge protests, where Evans is shown peacefully standing in front of two Louisiana state troopers in riot gear, as they charge towards her. She was arrested for ‘obstructing a highway’. It pinpoints exactly just the sort of systemic police oppression towards POC, that a white person cannot and will not ever experience.

The campaign instigated widespread Twitter backlash, with many coming forward to Tweet photographs or stories from protests expressing devastation in protest, that Pepsi’s crowd of music playing, fist-bumping young people sidestep.

One Tweeter tweeted Pepsi a photo of a young black child handing a hard-faced officer a bottle of water: a riot shield providing both tangible and allegorical barrier. She simply wrote ‘We did this in Baltimore. Nothing changed.’

With the un-waning influx of xenophobia and bigotry that has been on the rise across America and beyond of late, at face value Pepsi were reasonable to respond to unrest with proposing to create an advert that inspired unification. But their resulting output managed to trample over those who needed the reassurance the most. The solutions lie far, far deeper than a fizzy drink and an Instagram star in rousing support for social injustices.

Pepsi have since pulled their advertising campaign and issued 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 removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position’.

Lara Groves

(Image courtesy of Complex)

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