Pepsi’s recent controversial commercial may be off the air, but the bad taste it left in consumers’ mouths still lingers.
In early April 2017, Pepsi, the giant soda company, released an ad targeted to millennials that portrayed the era’s protest culture and aimed at the idea that Pepsi could bring everyone, despite their differences, together. What was meant to be a lighthearted ad about unity and peace was slammed by ad executives, TV pundits, and most importantly, the internet, as out of touch and completely tone-deaf. The company was accused of trivializing important causes like Black Lives Matter as a way of selling more soda. Within 24 hours of the commercial’s initial release, the company pulled the commercial from the airwaves and released an apologetic statement condemning their own ad. In an ironic twist, the shared hatred of the ad brought diverse groups of people together, though it didn’t help Pepsi’s sales. The brands stocks plummeted in the aftermath of the controversy. While the conversation Pepsi was attempting to start is a noble one, the execution of the ad failed it miserably.
The protest portrayed in the ad was generic, the decision to cast model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner as the leader of said protest was off-putting, and, perhaps worst of all, the idea that a can of soda could end a violent protest and unite protesters with police is laughable. If Pepsi’s goal was to get people talking about their product, they succeeded (sort of) – the YouTube video of the commercial amassed 1.6 million views in the first day and memes of the ad started almost immediately, and continued for weeks after. Saturday Night Live spoofed the ad in a scathing parody that very week. People were certainly talking about Pepsi, though not for the reasons they had initially hoped.
Can a can of soda change the world?
Coke vs. Pepsi: The rivalry continues
Pepsi’s big fumble brought to mind a similarly idyllic ad that rival soda brand Coca Cola produced in 1971, the famous “Hilltop” commercial. More than 40 years after its debut, people are still talking about “Hilltop”, and for good reasons. The ad was referenced in the finale of the AMC show Mad Men and it consistently makes the cut on lists of the best commercials ever made. Coke even remastered the original footage and re-released the commercial in 2016. The theme of the ad is similar to Pepsi’s attempt; it features a crowd of diverse people gathered together on a bucolic hillside with bottles of Coca Cola singing “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”. So why is Coke’s unity ad considered iconic while Pepsi’s was immediately reviled? The simple answer: execution.
Instead of using a bottle of Coke to bring people together in a big event, a diverse group of people simply gathered together to share their differences and commiserate over soda. Coke wasn’t the stimulus for the unity displayed in the commercial, people were. Coke’s ad is about people coming together in peace and harmony as a way to sell soda, not the other way around. That thought, combined with a catchy song, is what makes the commercial iconic.
Can soda change the cultural landscape?
Brands should use caution when tiptoeing the line between social commentary and social activism. Forward thinking brands are rewarded for taking a stand when consumers sense it is authentic. But companies are punished when people detect commerce behind the public social message. Things are not as simple as they were in 1971.
It could be argued that the success of Coca Cola’s ad in 1971 and the failure of Pepsi’s ad in 2017 is a difference in eras. In 1971, the Vietnam War was in full swing, with anti-war and women’s rights protests arising all over the country. It was a turbulent time that “Hilltop” was attempting to pacify. 2017 has seen a resurgence of social movements and terror attacks have launched a new era of global turbulence, something Pepsi wished to capitalize on with their Kendall Jenner-starring ad. What Pepsi failed to recognize is that, no matter the year, a can of soda can’t change the world.