Did social media make or break Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi advert?

Everyone reading this is bound to have heard of the latest scandal coming from the advertising industry: Pepsi’s “Jump In” short film advert featuring Kendall Jenner. Or if you haven’t, it might have been because the campaign was revoked less than 24 hours after it was  launched.

For anyone who hasn’t seen the advert, this will bring you up to speed.

The ad shows supermodel Kendall Jenner in a role of a supermodel (shock). She is taken aback during a photo shoot by a demonstration of some sort, encoded by ethnic-looking young adults carrying ambiguous posters such as “join the conversation”. Then, she feels the urge to “live in the moment” (according to Pepsi) by pulling off her wig and makeup, stepping away from the photo shoot and joining the crowd. Ultimately, she saves the day and ends police hostility by handing a smiling officer a can of Pepsi, which results in cheers from the crowd and they “party as if they are in the VIP enclosure at Coachella”, to quote the Guardian .

Twitter backlash

Many reacted to this advert as they saw it as a trivialisation of other people’s suffering and despair in order to appear ‘trendy’ and to sell a product, without actually supporting, or even naming, the cause they were highlighting. However, it doesn’t take a media degree to see that this advert clearly plays on stereotypical visual and audible representations of ethnicity and youth culture often tied to public demonstrations.

As you can imagine, the Twitter-sphere did not stand for this.

The advert was accused of recreating scenes from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and the backlash was so immense that the advert was taken down less than a day after it was released. Both Pepsi and Kendall Jenner’s social media posts promoting the ad were also deleted. Pepsi publicised an apology both to the audience and to Kendall Jenner shortly after pulling the ad.

How did it go so wrong?

The question everyone’s asking themselves now, is “how did such an advert even get rolled out in the first place?”. With the amount of scriptwriters, editors and focus groups, not to mention money, that has been involved in creating this advert, it is hard to think that no one reacted to the advert in the same way as the people of Twitter.

Pepsi’s marketing campaigns have been following the same strategy for years:

can or bottle of Pepsi + world famous celebrity + youthful setting 

= successful advert.

Evidently, Pepsi was going through these same motions for this advert, but took it into a setting that is still very emotionally raw. From an outside perspective, it seems that the fizzy drink company was relying solely on a superficial understanding of youth culture and demonstrations as a cultural phenomenon. It can be argued that the creators of this advert did not do a thorough enough job when they did their background research, and failed to grasp the emotions, ideologies and identities they were playing with.

Pepsi lives on

When looking at the history of advertising to youth culture, this happens quite often. Producers are out of touch with the audience, making them unaware of what might create a backlash. With the emergence of social media, these platforms have obtained power in communicating a public opinion, making the sound from these backlashes harder and harder for the producers to ignore.

But at the same time, it makes you wonder; will this backlash harm Pepsi in the long run or will the attention the ad’s received on social media generate more publicity to Pepsi than a good ad would have done? In the weeks following the release of the ad, social media was overflowing with memes referring to the ad, even put in the context of new occurrences of social injustice, such as the United Airlines-incident.

Controversy is a well-used marketing tool and, not surprisingly, Pepsi’s mentions on social media were high during the time the ad. So, despite un-insightful production and a social media backlash , there is truth in the statement “all PR is good PR” even in the era of social media.

Cover photo made by the author is free to use under CC BY 2.0.