Pepsi Created the Worst Advertisement I've Ever Seen

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.  

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Terry Hernlund's picture

I think this is kind of an over-thinking of the ad. I personally didn't find it particularly offensive. It was a little cringy I guess, but only because it was trying to be all touchy-feely-peace-and-lovey. I just clicked my tongue and rolled my eyes. I honestly wouldn't have thought anything more of it had I seen it organically.

After actually watching it, knowing that this was an object of offense for some, I kind of felt like anyone who was truly offended by it was really just looking for something to be offended by. :-/

Kawika Lopez's picture

Honestly, I have to agree with the above. Its seems a little along the lines of, "I want a reason to be upset." I get what you're saying, but I really don't think Pepsi's marketing team thinks that a can of pop is the key to solving world issues. The only message I got from the ad, after putting up with the corniness of it, is that Pepsi wants to stand of the side of peace and love rather than take a hard stance on issue that cause us to divide.

I feel like were moving into a time when, unless you are severely offended by something, people think you lack intellect. I say being easily offended is more of a sign of discontent in something greater. That or this strange need prove your intellect.

David Vaughn's picture

I don't think it's so much that it has to offend you. But I do think it is important to understand why something *could* be offensive to others.

It didn't offend me personally but I understand why it's offensive.

In the same way you say that some people believe you lack intellect if you're not offended, I also say that there is a growing number of people who believe that being willfully unsympathetic more mature. Both groups believe they're smarter than the other, just in different ways.

Kendrick Howard's picture

Everything can be offensive to others especially in our current climate where it's almost become a right of passage to be "victimized" by an offence. I think it may be more instructive to understand why that is the case and its ramifications.

Simon Patterson's picture

To take offence at something is to make a choice. As with all choices, sometimes they can be wise decisions and sometimes...not so much.

David Vaughn's picture

You can do both. Critical thought and sympathy/empathy aren't a finite resources.

Owain Shaw's picture

There's also the idea that Pepsi supposedly taking a stance of Peace and Love (although surely doing so to sell more beverages) is all very well but they, through sub-corporations such as Lays and its subsidiaries and brands, have a huge part to play in global issues such as Palm Oil which is responsible for habitat destruction and lack of farmland for necessary domestically consumed products in countries where it is produced ... issues involving corrupt governments probably don't exclude Pepsico either.

They, along with their wholly owned subsidiaries also place adverts in/on various media sources responsible for spreading lies and/or hatred (I'm looking at you Daily Mail but you're not alone, especially now) which they pay for thus ensuring the continued circulation of said media in order to deliver their advertising to the target market.

The idea of a peace loving gigantic multi-national corporation is, as most of us probably already know, therefore laughable.

Felix Wu's picture

I must second your opinions. Perhaps I am not culturally sensitive enough to recognize even the point where people should feel offended. I really don't understand the fuzz about people complaining about the pepsi ad (or those who simply follow the crowd). It's well executed just like any other PEPSI ad, perhaps a little bit cheesy and predictable but nothing more than that.

David Vaughn's picture

It's incredibly tone deaf in my eyes. "Togetherness" is a cliche theme in marketing, but the fact that they chose THIS topic to commercialize really makes me believe some executive at Pepsi is really out-of-touch.

Commercials are generally very shallow. But the worst commercials are shallow while also trying to be topical.

The PR was so bad they actually pulled the ad. It's only aired like 2 days.

Peter Brody's picture

It was just another case of a corporation backing down to the vocal minority. That's the kind of politically correct madness that is destroying America.

Simon Patterson's picture

And not just America. The western world is subject to it.

Peter Brody's picture

No doubt, but it's not my place to critque the domestic affairs of other democratic countries. I'm American so it is my place to comment on my country's domestic affairs.

Deleted Account's picture

I agree for the most part. Some people actively trying to be offended when they're really just uncomfortable. It's a horrible commercial and I'd expect less cringeworthy material from Pepsi but what do people expect? They're just trying to pander it's what all advertisements do.

Michael Kormos's picture

All I see is a lot of people drinking Pepsi, nothing more. In fact, I can just picture the whole creative team reviewing the rough cuts of this ad in a meeting room, and one of the art directors screaming "we need more screen time of people drinking pepsi!". That's exactly what they got here. Besides, this wouldn't be the first time that a major brand used opportunism to its advantage. Running off current events, social upheaval, and a fist in the air, all while they're drinking Pepsi. Kind of lame and short-sighted if you ask me.

michael buehrle's picture

worst ever ? i doubt it. i wasn't even remotely offended by it either. why didn't she give all the cops one ? there was enough, just think how much the crowd would have cheered then. dumb yes, worst ever? nope

Felix Wu's picture

Online articles are too dramatic these days lol

Ben Perrin's picture

Yeah I'm not sure about it being the worst ever, but it is certainly cringy. That product placement was really bad as well. It reminds me of the kfc ad that got banned in Australia because folks in America misunderstood the context of the ad. It was about a bunch of people enjoying a game of cricket together because kfc was something that everyone liked. People mistook offering kfc's "crowd pleaser" to West Indians as racist because they looked like black Americans. Food can certainly bring people together. It is quite powerful thing to share a meal with someone who you've struggled to find common ground with. This ad misses the mark though. It is one good thing about youtube though. If people think your video is terrible they'll let you know. If they think it's great they'll also let you know. Gotta love honest feedback.

Peter Brody's picture

A lot of feedback is worth ignoring today. Most of it is from loud, self-entitled and angry adult children that are incapable of having a reasonable and objective discussion and debate.

Ben Perrin's picture

Yeah there is a lot worth ignoring. You just don't want to ignore ALL feedback just because some is negative.

Peter Brody's picture

I never said or suggested "ALL." Rational, reasoned and objective discussions and debates should be the goal. Unfortunately we now have societies in Western countries that cater to those that feel that anything they perceive as negative should be shouted down, ignored or banned. Most of those people are young and are generally given way too much attention than they deserve. If it were up to me I would increase the voting age in my country to 30.

Ben Perrin's picture

I'm agreeing with you. All I was saying basically is just because there are trolls and immature arguments thrown about online doesn't mean we should stop speaking or stop listening. I think we are almost saying the same thing. Just because feedback can be negative doesn't mean that it isn't true or helpful. Usually the best way to learn is by opening yourself up to something uncomfortable. Unfortunately too many people these days just want to ignore the negative stuff so they can feel safe. Well they may feel safe but they stunt their emotional growth and sabotage their ability to think critically. Then they open themselves up to brainwashing because they just go wherever the herd leads them without ever questioning why.

Peter Brody's picture

I was simply and fairly responding to your "ALL" remark.

I'm not a fan of the word troll. If I owned a forum I would ban people for calling other members trolls. That's just a way to try and avoid what people have to say, along with calling people racist and xenophobic.

You're preaching to the choir about negative feedback and about being open to liberal discourse. That should be obvious considering what I wrote. That said, I have no problem *generally* ignoring young people when it comes to politics and social issues. The vast majority of them are ignorant and naive. They have little life experience.

David Vaughn's picture

To be fair, age does not always correlate to knowledge in topics as esoteric and sometimes abstract as politics (both social and fiscal).

If I believe that most young people are ignorant and most older people are wise, then I will probably seek ignorance in everything the young person says and wisdom in anything the older person says.

That seems like it would be counterproductive to civil discourse.

Peter Brody's picture

In most cases *practical* knowledge and wisdom requires experience. The young that are still in school and that have not lived long enough on their own are not the kind of people I am even going to pay attention to in the first place when it comes to discussing political and social issues. I'm not going to waste my time looking for the exceptions.

As I already said, if it were up to me I would raise the voting age to 30.

As for judging individual views and opinions, I always do so objectively. The above reality doesn't prevent that.

Peter Brody's picture

A serious lack of empathy? You just signed up to this site specifically for the purpose of insulting me and Patrick. Where is your empathy?

You are showing why I generally ignore young people.

I'll show you empathy in action, by simply not responding as you have, with insults and name calling.

Brandon Vrvilo's picture

I'm not sure if I missed something, but I don't see what was so offensive about it? It seemed to be about people coming together, just like what Pepsi wanted. It certainly wasn't the best video I've seen about unity, and I agree that product placement was a little weird and through off the vibe, but it certainly wasn't the worst commercial ever.

Alex Cooke's picture

People generally found it offensive because:

1. It trivialized and commoditized serious social issues.
2. It sanitized and euphemised the reality of the situations brought about by those issues.
3. It placed someone of privilege with no history of real social activism as the "hero" who solved the issue.
4. It tried to play on the perceived allegiances of millennials for blatant monetary gain, which is both underhanded and intellectually insulting.

Here's a good breakdown:

Felix Wu's picture

1. What exactly were social issues did the ad imply?
2. What issues??
3. She's a celebrity! Who else would you use? Mr Bob?
4. It's a commercial, if not for monetary gain by promoting its product, what it is?
5. I really don't get what exactly was insulting about this ad. What's so worst about it? It tells a story in a cinematic way. It has product placements and promotes by drinking it people feel good. And you are trying to over read it? Does it suppose to provide healing in order to get public's approval? I am not a fan of pepsi but don't be so sensitive.

Simon Patterson's picture

I can understand that people who carry a particular mindset/worldview will react to this commercial in the way you described, and therefore raise those complaints.

Like many commenters here, I do not share their world view, and so I see nothing more than another cheesy softdrink commercial that simply cashes in on current popular culture. From my perspective, the complaints seem to be little more than a bunch of people taking themselves a little too seriously, rather than any objective criticism of the ad itself. However, of course, this opinion I share here is a result of my own world view, just as theirs is.

Unfortunately, I notice that some people who hold the particular world view that causes them to take offense at such an advertisement, are currently very vocal and aggressive in their calls for the rest of us to shut up. The example you post here seems to be simply another example in a long line of such cases. The causes of the outrage from this highly vocal minority seems to represent such a continually moving feast that I'm not surprised that creative directors and executives cannot keep up with what they will likely be attacked for next.

Alex Cooke's picture

Sure, Simon, I know you're always a reasonable and rational person on these threads and if that's your perspective, I respect it. I will say, though, that the people you reference do not help anything, in my view, even if their views agree with mine. I'll always believe in rational, evidence-based, respectful discourse, and if anyone on any side can't respect that and resorts to overly aggressive responses that are deaf to other perspectives, that gets us nowhere (and frankly is a huge issue in this country).

Simon Patterson's picture

I agree 100% Alex - all the shouting does nobody any good. Unfortunately, I feel little hope that it will end soon, especially when is proven to be so effective against so many, including big brands such as Pepsi in this case.

Benjamin Thomson's picture

As a 'millennial' that has been to several protests I couldn't agree more. When I saw a peace sign coloured in Pepsi brand colours, I threw up in my mouth.

Anonymous's picture

Really? That must have tasted horrible! ;-)

Peter Brody's picture

What exactly were you protesting that resulted in a peace sign with Pepsi colors?

By the way, there is a podcast you may be interested in. It's for those that see racism in food. The Racist Sandwhich Podcast. I listen to it when I'm in the mood for comedy. 😁

Justin Berrington's picture

After reading this I think Peter may be on to something with pushing the voting age a little higher. Even 30 might be a little low these days.

Peter Brody's picture

You're right. I now think the new age should be 35. I also think an IQ and critical thinking test should take place. 😁

Jorge Carrena's picture

Seriously? I am more annoyed by the Verizon commercial and the 20+ Mic drops they do.

Anonymous's picture

"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." :-/

Chet Meyerson's picture

Wow, did I miss something here! Not even sure what the writer was writing about. Oh well, next article.

Charles Gaudreault's picture

some peaople wake up in the morning and be like hmm today i will get offended by something ans this was it :P !

Robert Price's picture

Eh this is not even remotely news worthy. A circus monkey who's only value is to entertain and paid rightly for it did the job for a corporation who's only goal is to sell product to the masses. Is it offensive, maybe if you are an over sensitive person, all i saw was Pepsi (four of which i never buy, because it is too sweet) being give to a police office at an event of some type (call it a protest). It could have been a march for peace or what have you. I would have thought i was reading a CNN article instead of a photography site. Huh may have to rethink why i visit here. I come for photo related content not the "fake news"

Alex Cooke's picture

Please explain to me how an opinion piece can be considered fake news when it's not even of the same journalistic category.

Anonymous's picture

How can it be an opinion piece since you didn't 'inject your personal stance on the movements...'? You also state that it 'trivializes serious social issues.' Which issues would those be? A great deal of your opinion regarding the ad is clearly motivated by your opinion of the issues it supposedly trivializes.

I can't remember the last time I've said or written this, and I actually like you, but you're so full of shit!

Alex Cooke's picture

It's an opinion piece because it's opinion that it trivializes important issues, which I believe is offensive, no matter which side of an issue someone stands on. People feel strongly *on both sides* about the social issues this advertisement hints at. I made the distinction that I was not going to give which side of those issues I stand on, because I believe the inappropriateness of this commercial is universal (aka that premise of this piece) and I didn't want someone thinking my personal political and social leanings were what I was actually trying to pass off here. The opinion is about the trivialization of the issues, not where I think any one person should land within those issues.

Thanks for the last line, though; it really added a lot to the discussion.

Anonymous's picture

lol. Your last line is why I like you! ;-)
Since no one wants to name these issues, they must not be very important. In fact, no issue is important. People (individuals) are important. No group of people is important. No "cause" is important. Politics, sexuality, race, religion, environment...none of it is important.
That's it.
Nothing else.

Peter Brody's picture

"People feel strongly *on both sides* about the social issues this advertisement hints at."

Where is the evidence for that? I think most of the posters to this site lean to the left and all I've seen so far is people thinking it is not the big deal you are making it out to be.

As I said in a previous post, I think your feelings about the most recent protests of our time is affecting your judgement.

Robert Price's picture

Let's break down the commercial.
Girl getting photos taken.... (Jenner)
People marching, either in protest, or unity, that we dont know for sure which it is. I would hazard a guess that its a peaceful protest due to the peace signs and the multicultural group of people.

Musicians show up and play...
Female photographer frustrated with her work takes to the streets to document the event...

Jenner god from being in a dress, to being in jeans in 1.2 seconds...

Walks thru crowd of people and grabs a Pepsi to give to a thirsty police office...

That is the gist of the commercial.

Now instead of using our "feelings" here about what we think it is, based on how we feel...

Let's use logic and common sense, (could be a departure for some)

The commercial does not make light of any particular event. If anything it paint a good positive picture of people getting along. Some may assume that the police are there to stop the protestors, when in fact they could be there to maintain safety. The police were not in riot gear, so that shows that they were not there to confront, but to observe.

Simple reasonable deduction, can determine all of that. Bow add the fact that none of the signs had any branding, except for peace sings and some unity slogans, we can also determine that the fake march was in fact more of a party to celebrate, why else would there be musicians and people dancing. Don't really see any of that in most protests, just usually people screaming and breaking things.

Notice no anger on any ones faces.

This is a fluff media piece that is all it is, i have seen the tweets of people complaining about the comercial and they are quite the far left leaning. Being "offended" by a comercial that really has no connection to recent or past events of protests is childish at best, well no not even because i showed the comercial to my 11 year old and he could not see any offense at all. He actually asked me what can't people get along and enjoy life like the people in the comercial. Pretty good reasoning for an 11 year old.

So back to the whole part of this being a photography group.... why was the femal photographer looking at printed Color negative sheets, yet has a digital camera at her side? Should she not be proofing in Lightroom.

Justin Berrington's picture

Spot on! Kinda makes me want a pepsi now

Korey Napier's picture

I've seen plenty of cheesy commercials that try to imply comradery or unity (Coke's recent March Madness commercial featuring Kentucky and Kansas fans comes to mind) and I simply shake my head and don't give it much thought. I won't deny that Pepsi took a risk by trying to do the same thing but with a much more series social issue, but at the same time, I don't think there should be outrage. Sure, we could pick apart ridiculous things the commercial implies, but the core of their message (besides selling Pepsi) was "unity" and "respect for fellow man." The core of the commercial is positive. Even if I think it's a silly way to try and sell soda (and I do), I don't think it's the most ridiculous, stupid, naive commercial ever.

Alex Cooke's picture

That's certainly a fair take. I'd be hesitant to draw too many parallels between unity of sports fans, though. While the core message was certainly positive, I still find it offensive to trivialize something so many people are struggling with and to try to capitalize on that with a feigned message of caring.

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