We may have finally reached a cultural tipping point.
Something different just happened in the relationship between advertisers and consumers. No doubt you’ve heard about the recent Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner, the abortive launch of Pepsi’s “Moments” campaign that has been variously labeled “tone-deaf,” “trivializing,” and “cringe-worthy.”
In the ad, Jenner leaves a photo shoot to join a protest that seems to be modeled on a Black Lives Matter rally (although the political allegiance of the crowd is never made clear—the only legible protest signs bear politically vacant phrases like, “Join the conversation,” a slogan that seems to resonate as much with Jenner’s social media-driven celebrity as it does with any real-life revolutionary movement). She swiftly diffuses the tension between protesters and police by delivering a Pepsi to one of the officers. As Skip Marley’s “Lions” fades out, consumers are asked to “Live Bolder, Live Louder,” and then the trademark phrase, “Live for Now.”
The ad has been widely and justifiably vilified by everyone from Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., to prominent #BLM member DeRay Mckesson. And indeed, it is horrendous. It appropriates profoundly meaningful political rhetoric while denuding it of any political import. It exploits ethnically coded bodies, ethnically coded voices, and ethnically coded music (and incidentally, paying licensing and wage dollars doesn’t absolve Pepsi of responsibility here) all in the name of posing Pepsi PEP as a “diverse” brand that pretends to mean something.
It takes things that actually are really important and profoundly meaningful in our world and uses them to help package and sell a product that is tremendously unhealthy. Perhaps the worst thing is that the many millions spent on the creation and dissemination of the ad could do so much good for the vaguely aggregated causes (whatever they might be—#BLM? Anti-Trump? Planned Parenthood? Greenpeace? National Endowment for the Arts?). It’s sickening.
It’s also not remotely new as an advertising concept, nor is it surprising. Pepsi, Coke, and several other companies have been doing this kind of thing for years: appropriating music, language, and iconography from the counterculture of the moment to sell merchandise to young consumers. Pepsi’s “Live for Now” slogan is more or less the same thing they’ve been doing for over six decades (ironically), beginning with the awkwardly written, “Now it’s Pepsi: For those who think young” in 1961—positioning the brand as a young, edgy, hip alternative to creaky, old Coca-Cola KO . Coke, meanwhile, is of course the brand behind the legendary 1971 “Hilltop” ad that played heavily on ‘60s hippie counterculture with the song, “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing.”
Outside of the cola wars, Apple AAPL routinely co-opts countercultural ideas and icons, as in the “Think Different” campaign from the late 1990s and 2000s that included images of many countercultural, revolutionary figures: Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Miles Davis, Nelson Mandela, and others—paired with the Apple logo and tagline. So while the appropriation of countercultural images and sounds isn’t always as conspicuous and clumsy as it is in the ad featuring Kendall Jenner, it happens all of the time. Once you see the trend, you start to find it everywhere.
The difference with all of these earlier ads, of course, is that none of them were pulled as hastily or dramatically as the Pepsi spot. Of course, most have faced their share of criticism, but pulling an ad is an extreme rarity. Advertisements, especially video ads for the flagship brand that are released globally, star Kendall Jenner, and run almost three minutes—much longer than the industry standard of 15 or 30 seconds—go through an extremely rigorous vetting process before they ever see the light of day. Focus group after focus group would have watched not only the final ad, but probably discussed the steps that went into its conceptualization and creation. This ad didn’t go to air without lots of real people cheering enthusiastically along with the actor-protesters as the actor-cop enjoys his Pepsi. What did all of those real people miss?
It seems that we may have finally reached a cultural tipping point, where the voices of the counterculture are able to respond quickly and forcefully to advertisers trying to appropriate from the movement. Once something has the stench of failure about it, Twitter TWTR users are quick to pile on. What’s more, because the critique of the ad and the advertisement itself are distributed via the same social media channels, once the negative energy picked up some momentum within a couple of hours of the ad’s release, the ad was traveling with its own critique attached—in comment threads, as part of scathing blog posts, and so on.
And this critique was no mere derision. Black Twitter—the aggregation of politically motivated African American users of the social media platform—and its allies seemed to draw a line. When Bernice King tweeted an image of her father being accosted by a police officer with the caption, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi” (retweeted 182,000 times), and when DeRay Mckesson tweeted, “If I had carried Pepsi I guess I never would’ve gotten arrested. Who knew?,” you got a strong sense that the major figures in the 21st century civil rights movement would not allow their revolution to be so glibly televised.
What happens next? If this has indeed been a moment in which we have found our voice, in which we have found the means and will to protect the sounds and icons of our resistance, then it falls to all of us collectively to remember that advertisers have successfully pulled this appropriation trick thousands of times before—and they’ll doubtless try it again—and whoever does it next time will be much smarter and more subtle. It’s up to us to protect the things that we value more than commerce, and to continue to put advertisers like Pepsi on notice that we’re watching carefully: that these “Moments” are ours, and they can’t have them.
Mark Laver is an assistant professor of music at Grinnell College and the author of Jazz Sells: Music, Marketing, and Meaning.