By Professor Keith Murray
Last week, Pepsi yanked a commercial depicting Kendall Jenner playing the part of a lighthearted protester in a march who walked over to a policeman to share her Pepsi with him.
The soft-drink company retracted the ad after an outburst on social media, with many complaining that it trivialized protesting and detracted from the sentiments of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has been bitterly critical of police for using violence against African Americans.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a news release. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize.”
Unless I viewed the wrong Pepsi commercial, there seems to be little to disagree with from an ordinary citizen’s point of view. If viewed dispassionately, the promotional clip affirmed cheerful social involvement and protest by Americans in their rich diversity, as well as the beauty of one sharing a soda with a civil servant while at the same make-believe rally.
So what’s not to like? The focus on social involvement? Engaging in a kind and thoughtful act?
By the specious logic of some in the social media with a striking degree of rage and cynicism, the two events shouldn’t be mixed. This view seems pretty un-American, and largely contrary to the view most people in the country probably share.
Obviously, there is nothing wrong about a peaceful protest. At the same time, there’s nothing inherently shameful — but instead quite virtuous — about engaging in an act of kindness toward others, including police. In this country, far more citizens than not, readily acknowledge the positive contribution that first responders make to our civil tranquility and personal well-being.
That the soft-drink company decided to march to the tune of a fringe audience, however loud it may have made itself in social media was a moment of truth that was revealing of Pepsi. Here’s why: Corporate Pepsi signaled to all, even more loudly and clearly than the comparatively few whining tweeters, that it is easily swayed from the values it appeared to stand for, that it doesn’t really believe in the very ideals and values of American goodness that went into the commercial it made in the first place.
If Pepsi execs had thought this through, they might have understood that the shrill, hysterical social misfits are far outnumbered by their loyal patrons on Main Street, those standing figuratively in the commercial and metaphorically in real-life behind the police. Evidently the firm wants to assuage the pain of a few socially radical cranks over almost everybody else.
It is not a trade secret that professionally-conducted blind taste tests show that eight out of ten consumers can’t tell the difference between a light and dark soda beverage; furthermore, it’s virtually impossible for most people to distinguish among brands, though they are touted for their taste nuances!
Soda consumption is fundamentally a function of social perceptions. Most people have brand preferences based on the values the firm projects in its media advertising.
By Pepsi caving to the demands of a radical, unrepresentative few, it is not difficult to see how many in the marketplace may now rightfully see Pepsi as clinging to values that do not represent the millions of customers it seeks to please, people who daily choose which brand to patronize when they buy at the store.
It is hard not to see how the retraction by Pepsi screams out where the firm’s values really reside, specifically with those who disavow the laudable, worthy interpretations of their very own commercial message. More than a few soda drinkers may now have ample reason to find other brands to consume and value at the moment — brands that reflect the values of the customers, not those of PepsiCo.
Keith B. Murray is a marketing professor at Bryant University and this op-ed article was in a recent issue of the Providence Journal.