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Pepsi Unites the World... But Not in the Way They’d Hoped



INFLUENCER: Jack Morton's Caspar Mason on the Kendall Jenner-powered spot that's causing a stir on the internet

Pepsi Unites the World... But Not in the Way They’d Hoped

Well. That escalated quickly. 

As you already know, Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner-powered latest instalment of its ‘Live For Now’ campaign has not been met with universal acclaim. It’s certainly caused quite a stir (and in terms of Mental Availability, they are KILLING it), but the 7,500% increase in social mentions of the brand have not been the happiest time for Pepsi’s social team. 

No doubt inspired by my last LBB piece about brands nailing their colours to the mast and taking a stand, Pepsi created an unholy cocktail of Black Lives Matter, Arab Spring and #Resist imagery, watered down with a saccharine sludge of feel-good, happy-clappy millennial-flavoured ’this is what the kids are into, aren’t they?’ nonsense. It turns out that attempting to harness the power of people’s passion points goes sour very quickly if you’re careless and/or cynical with things people are passionate about. 

In fact, its awfulness has prompted several non-industry types to turn media analyst, producing shot-by-shot takedowns of just why, how and exactly how hard this content sucked. 

And the industry-wide schadenfreude…oh my, the schadenfreude. PepsiCo CMO Brad Jakeman had put a lot of noses out of joint at the Association of National Advertising's 2015 "Masters of Marketing” conference, where he berated agencies for a lack of disruptive ideas and innovative thinking. Presumably fuelled by this dissatisfaction, Pepsi set up its own in-house content agency in 2016. Glowing articles sung its praises. Freed from expensive, unresponsive agencies, Pepsi’s Creators League studios was the place "the company hopes will let marketers, not agencies, sit in the creative driver’s seat.” 

It was. They did. And the Jenner film was Creators League’s first big piece of work. Ouch. 

Of course, agencies have served up numerous turkeys in their time. But this is a big one, and set against a backdrop of a big brand saying ‘give it here, we’ll show you how it’s done’. And the negative reaction has extended far beyond the self-obsessed bubble of brands and agencies. 

Looking past the industrial-scale smirking (and some typically spot-on tweets from Adweak), the industry conversation has coalesced around two main topics - the need for more diversity across the industry, and the perils of taking your creative in-house.

On the first point: I’m not sure this is necessarily cast-iron proof that this was conceived, created and signed-off by an all-white team. Woah there. Hear me out.

Don’t get me wrong - there is no doubt that our industry has a huge diversity problem, especially around race and class. In part, we’re still recovering from years and years of unpaid internships filling the industry with well-connected middle class kids. We’ve only just realised that externalising labour costs to the Bank of Mum & Dad has a downside in terms of diversity and, therefore, the quality of our work. But I digress. 

PepsiCo has not dragged its feet over workplace diversity - it's long been seen as a trailblazer, even before it appointed Indra Nooyi as its first female CEO in 2006. Since then, Ms. Nooyi has not been backwards in coming forwards about social issues: “How dare we talk about women that way” she said of Trump the day after his election. 

The argument runs that only an out-of-touch, all-white team could’ve made an advert so culturally tone-deaf and racially insensitive (and it is. It really, really is). And maybe this is the case. But, whatever our background, we are all subject to a powerful influence on our behaviour through the group in which we work - what I call Participation Bias. 

This is the huge pro-social need we humans have to be one of the goodies. To feel that the organisation to which we have hitched our wagon is well-respected, well-liked and a positive force. We tell ourselves this, and we assume others feel the same way. We find it harder to be critical of our own ‘In-Group’. Critical voices are not necessary listened to. The greater this consensus, the harder it is to pipe up with an ‘actually…I don’t think people love us enough for this to land well’. 

This is where the in-house/agency point comes in. One of the great ‘soft' services an agency can offer is distance and, with it, perspective. An agency has a certain permission to look at a brand’s situation and say what’s hot and what’s not. After all, “truth is the best strategy anyone ever had", according to Sir John Hegarty. Of course this strategy doesn’t always work, as anyone knows who has felt an icy wind blow through a pitch after your creative director drops a truth-bomb that’s a bit too truthful for the client to swallow. 

In-house or agency, disruptive or not…there are two big take-outs: firstly, the benefits of diversity are only unlocked when you have an internal culture of listening and respect. Secondly, people can immediately see through a brand pretending to give a shit about something people hold dear, and they’ll tell the world about it. 

If nothing else, Pepsi has written a great Act I for its 'how we got ourselves out of the shit' Cannes 2019 award entry. 

Caspar Mason is Senior Creative Strategist at Jack Morton Worldwide 

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Jack Morton UK, Fri, 07 Apr 2017 15:17:28 GMT