Case Study #16: Whitewashing Black Lives Matter: How Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Commercial Went So Wrong

by Kyanna Cox, Julie Dao, Anjelika Seo, and Sam Schechter, 2023

 

In April, 2017, amidst Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests across America (Cowling, 2021), Pepsi released an advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner, a rich, white celebrity. The ad, intended to promote Pepsi as a socially conscious brand, faced severe backlash and criticism for trivializing social justice movements, exploiting activism for commercial gain, and displaying a lack of cultural sensitivity. By reviewing this case study, public relations professionals can gain valuable insight into the importance of responsible messaging, cultural awareness, and crisis management in the modern public relations landscape.

Background

The Pepsi commercial featured young people pursuing their passions, in between depictions of young people protesting for peace. Jenner, a young model (her depicted passion), and the other people pursuing their passions are inspired by the protest and join in.

This all leads up to the protesters facing down with a rather tranquil-looking and non-militarized line of police and Jenner walking through the crowd, being sure to grab a Pepsi as she makes her way to the front. She then passes the Pepsi to a smiling police officer, who gratefully accepts it and takes a sip, resulting in everyone cheering and featuring the words “Live Bolder.” The commercial concludes with the Pepsi logo and the words “Live For Now.”

The independent message, outside of buying Pepsi products, seemed to be that passionate young people have the power to make change. However, the advertisement was generally received very poorly due to the unfair and unrealistic portrayal of conflict between civil rights protesters and police, especially in the context of documented police violence against both protesters and Black Americans (D’Addario, 2017).

Goals

Pepsi had several goals with the commercial. First, the company aimed to promote itself as a socially conscious brand aligned with important social causes. By associating its product with social activism, Pepsi hoped to resonate with consumers who prioritize brands that support social justice issues. Second, Pepsi wanted to increase its brand relevance among younger consumers. By featuring Jenner, a popular figure among the target demographic, the company sought to appeal to millennials and Gen Z consumers who value authenticity and social responsibility. Third, Pepsi aimed to generate buzz and positive brand sentiment through viral marketing. The company intended for the commercial to go viral on social media platforms, sparking conversations and driving engagement.

Needless to say, one lesson of this public relations case study is that their approach not only failed, but backfired horribly.

Criticisms

The backlash came not only from Black Americans, protesters, and allies, but also from national figures such as Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Vis et al., 2020). King criticized the ad on Twitter (now X) with an image of her father in the middle of a protest, being pushed back by a police officer, with the caption reading, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi” (Smith, 2017). Beyond that, Pepsi was accused of “appropriation of aesthetics in protest” (Victor, 2017); many pointed out how the officers in the commercial were noticeably less militarized than the heavily armed and armoured officers whom Black Lives Matter protesters often faced.

Elle Hearns, a former BLM organizer, told the New York Times that the ad “plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilizing protests” (Victor, 2017). Pepsi’s portrayal of a protest is much like a big party, where protestors are celebrating and having a good time. However, the reality of protests, such as those for the BLM movement, is that they can be very dangerous.

There are many instances where Black protesters have been arrested and/or attacked by law enforcement, despite protesting peacefully. Black people who go to the streets to protest are arguably risking their lives each time they do so. Protesters harmed in the past made a tremendous sacrifice to stand up for their cause. The infamous moment when Kendall Jenner hands a police officer a Pepsi trivializes these risks and sacrifices.

Damage Control

Not even 48 hours after its release (Tillman, 2019), Pepsi took the ad down. The company also released a 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 this position.”

The apology to Jenner was criticized because it was a job she was paid for; the apology implied she had no idea what she was doing (suggesting ignorance, rather than a calculated public relations and media mistake).

Jenner never made any public statements at the time; however, her also-famous sisters made statements to drum up understanding or pity for the young celebrity (Gonzales, 2017). Jenner deleted any trace of the Pepsi campaign from her social media accounts. Being the face of the campaign, Jenner took on a large portion of the backlash, which was amplified due to the ongoing accusations of the Kardashian-Jenner family black-fishing, fetishizing Black men and children, and other related controversies. The family controversy went so far as to become a meme and is still something commonly referred to when talking about her career.

However, there was seemingly no long-term impact on her career outside of reinforcing some people’s opinions of the Kardashian-Jenner family.

On the other hand, Pepsi saw its lowest measured perception levels in over eight years. Younger people’s purchase consideration was at its lowest level in three years. Particularly, the purchase consideration of Millennials had gone from 33% in 2015 to 23% in 2017, an all-time low for the company (Tillman, 2019).

The Pepsi “Live For Now” Campaign (2017) versus the Coca-Cola Peace Campaign (1971)

The concept of promoting a food product as bettering humanity isn’t new. In 1971, Coca-Cola released their “Hiltop” ad (Project ReBrief, 2012), featuring young people of different ethnocultural backgrounds singing about Coca-Cola having the power to unite the world, painting a picturesque world filled with “love” and “harmony.” Of note, during this time, major ongoing protests against the Vietnam War were prominent across America. Similar to the 2017 Pepsi ad, amidst ongoing protests, a successful company sought a way to capitalize on the protest sentiment.

However, the Coca-Cola ad was received well, as the company claims to have received more than 100,000 letters of support. Coca-Cola called it “one of the most iconic ads ever made” (Coca-Cola Company, 2012).

The major difference between the campaigns is just the age they were released in. In the 1970s, America was just exiting the Consumer Era, where there was a lot of trust between companies and consumers (National Museum of American History, n.d.). By 2017, people were feeling the negative effects of corporate greed globally. Since the 1970s, general living costs have gone up and wages have not kept up with inflation or corporate profits (Mishel, Gould, & Bivens, 2015).

Another major difference is that the Vietnam War wasn’t taking place in America. Although Americans were directly impacted by the Vietnam War, the conflict itself was half a world away. The ongoing police brutality against Black Americans was something happing in their cities, neighbourhoods, and even in their own homes. The death and violence was experienced with less of a buffer. Also, social media gave an incredible forum for rapid, collective, snowballing criticisms against Pepsi. Coca-Cola faced no such social media threat in 1971.

Learning for Public Relations Practitioners

This case study sheds light on the significance of responsible messaging, cultural awareness, and effective crisis management within the realm of public relations. By examining the key aspects of the Pepsi controversy, practitioners can extract valuable lessons for their professional endeavours.

Cultural sensitivity and authenticity emerge as vital pillars in successful public relations initiatives. The Pepsi commercial faced severe backlash for trivializing social justice movements and exploiting activism for commercial gain. To evade appropriation and commodification, practitioners must approach sensitive issues with a profound understanding of cultural nuances. Younger consumers, particularly millennials and Gen Z, value authenticity and gravitate towards brands that genuinely support social causes. Aligning messaging with their values establishes a genuine connection, mitigating any perception of insincerity or exploitation.

This idea of incorporating social activism or “wokeness” into corporations and marketing is one that, while controversial, with the right touch, can be successful. A good example of this is Nike’s 2016 “Dream Crazy” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, a recognized and controversial social activist. While both campaigns seem to be inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, a key difference is that Kaepernick was a Black man facing backlash by the NFL for kneeling during the American national anthem, whereas Jenner was neither a prominent voice for justice nor part of an oppressed minority (Guardian Sport, 2019).

Further, clarity and focus in messaging plays a pivotal role in ensuring effective communication. The Pepsi commercial faced criticism for its vague messaging, which failed to clearly articulate the cause advocated by the protesters. Practitioners should strive for specificity, ensuring that their messaging aligns precisely with the values they seek to promote. Clear and concise communication facilitates a better understanding of objectives and intentions, fortifying the effectiveness of the message.

Learning from criticism and responding promptly represent integral components of crisis management. In the face of substantial backlash, practitioners must promptly acknowledge the criticism and take appropriate action. Pepsi’s swift removal of the commercial and issuance of an apology within 48 hours exemplifies such a response. This not only mitigates damage to the brand’s reputation, but also demonstrates a genuine commitment to addressing public concerns. Embracing criticism as an opportunity for growth and using it to inform future strategies is essential for long-term success.

Regardless of taking precautions, there’s always a risk for corporations trying to align themselves with people facing hardship. These corporations are not people and do not share the same concerns, persecution, or prejudice. Even though ads can be displayed as a desire by the corporation to make a change, there is always going to be the motivation for profit and gain. For a lot of people, the profit motive will never outweigh the hope they have to impact social change.

Continuous monitoring and adaptation are crucial. The Kendall Jenner and Pepsi controversy demonstrates social media’s immense power in amplifying sentiment. Practitioners must proactively monitor and listen to social media feedback, adapting strategies accordingly. Transparent dialogue and prompt addressing of concerns prevent crises and enhance brand perception.

However, as closing food for thought, despite the magnitude of the ad’s negative response, this did not have a significant long-term impact on Pepsi’s brand perception. The company’s revenue for the 12 months ending March 31, 2023, was $88 billion, about a 9% increase above the previous year. Their revenue and net-worth continue to increase (Macrotrends, 2023).

References

Coca-Cola Company. (2012). The origins of the iconic hilltop commercial. https://www.coca-colacompany.com/media-center/origins-of-iconic-hilltop-commercial

Cowling, A. (2021, April 21). Black Lives Matter: A timeline to the movement. Cosmopolitan. https://www.cosmopolitan.com/uk/reports/a32728194/black-lives-matter-timeline-movement/

D’Addario, D. (2017, April 5). Why Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad was such a glaring misstep. https://time.com/4726500/pepsi-ad-kendall-jenner/

Gonzales, E. (2017, August 16). Kim Kardashian says Kendal Jenner cried over her Pepsi ad. Harper’s Bazaar. https://www.harpersbazaar.com/celebrity/latest/a12021530/kim-kardashian-kendall-jenner-cried-pepsi-ad/

Guardian Sport. (2019, September 16). Nike’s ‘Dream Crazy’ advert starring Colin Kaepernick wins. https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/sep/16/nikes-dream-crazy-advert-starring-colin-kaepernick-wins-emmyJoyce, G. (2017, April 7). Data on the extent of the backlash to the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. Brandwatch. https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/react-kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad/#:~:text=Within%20the%20most%20common%20reactions

Lamb J. (2017, December 29). Top story of 2017: Effects of Jocques Clemmons shooting still linger. News Channel 5 Nashville. https://www.newschannel5.com/news/top-story-of-2017-effects-of-jocques-clemmons-shooting-still-linger

Macrotrends. (2023). Pepsico revenue 2010-2023. https://www.macrotrends.net/stocks/charts/PEP/pepsico/revenue

Macgregor, J. (2022, April 12). How Pepsi and Kendall Jenner changed the way brands talk about social justice. Friday Things. https://www.fridaythings.com/recent-posts/pepsi-commercial-kendall-jenner

Mishel, L.,  Gould, E., & Bivens, J. (2015, January 6). Wage stagnation in nine charts. Economic Policy Institute. https://www.epi.org/publication/charting-wage-stagnation/

National Museum of American History. (n.d.). The Consumer Era, 1940s-1970s. American Enterprise. National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/american-enterprise-exhibition/consumer-era

Paquet, D. (2017, April 6). Pepsi apologizes to Kendall Jenner for decision she made and got paid for. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/04/06/pepsi-apologizes-to-kendall-jenner-for-decision-she-made-and-got-paid-for/

Project ReBrief. (2012, March 6). Coca-Cola, 1971 – ‘Hilltop’ | “I’d like to buy the world a Coke. Youtube. https://youtu.be/1VM2eLhvsSM

Smith, A. (2017, April 5). Pepsi pulls controversial Kendall Jenner ad after outcry. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/nbcblk/pepsi-ad-kendall-jenner-echoes-black-lives-matter-sparks-anger-n742811

Tillman, L. (2019, June 17). Case study: PepsiCo & Kendall Jenner’s controversial commercial. Astute. https://astute.co/pepsi-kendall-jenner-commercial/

Victor, D. (2017, April 5). Pepsi pulls ad accused of trivializing Black Lives Matter. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html

Yashshady11. (2017, April 6). Full Pepsi commercial starring Kendal Jenner. Youtube. https://youtu.be/uwvAgDCOdU4