Campaign date: April 2017

Pepsi’s ‘Live for Now’ campaign fell flat when a YouTube ad featuring model Kendall Jenner was swiftly removed for “missing the mark”, amid accusations of belittling protests that were happening across the United States.

In the video, Kendall Jenner features as a model who mid-photoshoot becomes distracted by a passing protest march for peace. Encouraged to join in by a protester, Kendall whips off her blonde wig, wipes off her lipstick and somehow glides through the masses to reach the front of the crowd. En route she picks up a can of the soft drink and hands it to a policeman, who – to much anticipation of his response – takes a sip. Cue celebrations all around: apparent crisis averted.

The advert was widely criticised on social media for appearing to play down recent demonstrations across the US. Protests about the use of force by police against African Americans had been running for nearly two years, so all being resolved by a soft drink seemed to make light of these serious issues.

Taykey, a consumer research firm, stated in their Q2 2017 report that “the ad resulted in conversations surrounding Pepsi to be 110% less positive than usual“.

Pepsi withdrew the advert less than 24 hours after its launch and apologised. The brief statement said: “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.”

They might have hoped this would put a swift end to the controversy, but months later – after further horrific violence in Charlottesville – The Drum reported that “conversation volume for Pepsi rose 144% the weekend of the Charlottesville protest” and that “people talking about Charlottesville were 2.2x more likely to discuss Pepsi and Kendall Jenner than the general population.

This isn’t going to go away quickly and will follow them around online for some time.

What does good look like?

Activism marketing is increasingly popular, but there’s a fine line to tread between genuinely standing for something or co-opting a cause for commercial gain. We’re in an easily offended world – but standing for something is still good marketing – just consider your delivery carefully.

According to AdWeek, the ad was created by their in-house creative team. Was it challenged in the same way that an external agency relationship might have allowed? Sometimes you get so involved in an idea that you can’t see the the CO2 for the bubbles – and a second pair of eyes might bring you back to reality. The value of focus groups and testing cannot be understated.

As the Atlantic postulated, it’s likely the roots of the advert started in a research report. A report that might have said activism resonates with Millennials – and before you know it, you’re heading down the same path PepsiCo trod with Mountain Dew in 2013.

As simple a model as PESTLE is, I wonder if asking Sociological questions of the campaign, such as “What are the cultural expectations of our target audience?” or “What are the population dynamics?”, might have prevented this PR fail.

Moving forward

What are the lessons learned? What will you now do in your own work? How else might Pepsi have prevented this from happening?

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