Commercials are generally supposed to be innocuous. They're inconsequential, and by that very property, trying to use them to tackle something deeper is touchy territory, and as Pepsi just demonstrated, can be an incredible failure.
Corporations like Pepsi exist to sell us products and turn as big a profit as possible, plain and simple. And so, mixing that objective with issues of social justice is rarely advisable, as it risks coming across as commoditizing and thereby trivializing the seriousness of such issues for financial gain. A few companies have tried to toe that line with varying degrees of success, but Pepsi has failed completely, and it's a good lesson in the misuse of imagery.
Watch the commercial above. In it, a cellist practices alone, when a nondescript march with Pepsi brand colored signs passes outside. Meanwhile, a photographer reviews contact sheets, and Kendall Jenner models for a shoot while wearing a blonde wig, all with Pepsi product placement. Eventually, all three, supposedly frustrated or dissatisfied by their solitary work and drawn to the greater purpose of the march, leave their independent locations and join the march, Jenner ripping off her blonde wig and wiping off her lipstick. That's when the ad takes a really questionable turn, as it cuts to a line of policemen forming a barricade. Jenner weaves through the crowd, grabbing a Pepsi, breaking the line, and handing it to an officer. He opens it, taking a sip, and the protest crowd breaks into raucous applause, and I broke into a raucous cringe. The officer turns to a colleague with a smile and gives him a head tilt that can only be assumed to imply him saying something akin to: "Hey, maybe we can all get along after all." Here's what Joseph Kahn, a prominent music video and film director, had to say:
I'm not going to inject my personal stance on the movements that are put on display in the ad, because I don't want you to think I'm injecting that into this analysis. The truth is (in my opinion), this ad is offensive regardless of your political and social leanings, because it takes issues of tremendous weight, washes them of the metaphorical and very literal blood, sweat, tears, money, and policy that have gone into them, turning them into weirdly lighthearted affairs, and then trivializes them by commoditizing them to sell soda and implying that said soda is somehow the key to breaking the clashes.
As Chris Cuomo aptly put it when he responded to a mattress store ad that made fun of 9/11:
So much of what we're dealing with now in terms of our fears about the world stem from the reality of what can happen. And when you get casual about that, you're not just being insensitive; on a level, you're being inhuman.
Pepsi initially seemed to be doubling down on the ad, nevertheless, saying:
This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony. We think that’s an important message to convey.
Sure, that's a fine message. But it's really disingenuous to feign a purity of intention when the sanctity and success of that message is portrayed as resting upon a can of soda. Frankly, it's not just disingenuous, it's stupid, and I have no idea how this ad made it out of the board room.
I could further dissect the ad and point out other moments and aspects that show highly questionable creative decisions, but I'd rather focus on the larger theme at play here, which is that the commercial highlights the power of imagery and the responsibility that that power requires in its usage.
It's worth noting that while I was writing this article, Pepsi removed the ad from their YouTube channel after it had racked up almost two million views, with about 5,000 likes and 30,000 dislikes. They eventually released the following 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 that position.
Of course, I'm making two larger points that go beyond admonishing Pepsi's not-even-thinly veiled attempt to capitalize on social issues. First, imagery does not exist in a vacuum. Culture informs imagery informs culture. Part of the reason we recognize this ad as offensive is because the imagery of the reality of the issues is so strongly embedded in our memories and seeing the way a soda commercial both trivializes and visually euphemizes that reality sparks a dissonance in our mind. That imagery has been visual information that has helped us to form opinions and understanding of the gravity of these issues. That's how imagery informs culture.
Second, it reinforces the considerations that creatives must make in their work when they put it out in the world at large, because as much as we like to think that there is some purity or pseudo-nobility of art that distinguishes and separates it from the culture in which it was created, that's simply not true. Every individual carries with them a sum of experiences, beliefs, biases, etc., and all those factor into creative decisions and influence the final product; the artist does not carry some sort of diplomatic immunity from the art that they have created. While it may not always be as blatant and intentional a statement as this, it does carry with it an inherent representation of who created it. That effect is compounded by the collective consciousness of those who view and interpret it, and while the argument may be made that the artist does not owe the viewer, it is prudent to consider the perspective of the viewer. That's culture informing imagery.
What happened here on a large, abstract level, was a group of creatives and corporate executives displaying remarkable tone-deafness to the second tenet. Couple that with poorly disguised corporate pandering and greed, and you have the disaster we saw today. By which mechanisms that came to be is another discussion, though one that is very worthwhile having. Nevertheless, the vast outcry against the ad is a stark reminder that imagery, particularly of a thematic nature, is as powerful as ever, and that effect must be considered by the creator.