Is There Ever A Place For Brands In The Protest Conversation?

Yesterday, Pepsi launched a TV spot starring Kendall Jenner which most definitely met the number one rule of ad execs everywhere: Get noticed. But in the internet era, the idea that “all press is good press” is laughable — especially when a backlash leaves a brand on the wrong side of wokeness. On Twitter, the retribution was swift and every outlet in the country has since covered the firestorm (and the subsequent memes). This morning, Pepsi issued a second statement and the ad was pulled.

Interestingly, Kendall Jenner handing a cop a Pepsi and thereby brokering a solution to complex problems has the exact same theme as the most famous soft drink campaign ever, “I’d like to buy the world a Coke.” But Coca-Cola had three things going for it with that spot: 1) It first ran in 1971, when brands cheering on diversity was fresh and seemed like part of the solution; 2) it was vague enough to not be shredded for co-opting imagery of the era; and 3) it represented peace, but didn’t depict the implied conflict.

The Pepsi ad, on the other hand borrowed the visual cues and, more importantly, the frustration of a movement that has defined this decade: Black Lives Matter. In the clip, a marching crowd — full of that electric “this is our moment” energy — inspires a model (surrounded by artifice), a musician (practicing on a rooftop for no audience), and a photographer (who is almost confusingly enraged by her tear sheets) to take to the streets. Then, when Kendall rips off her wig and shares a Pepsi with a police officer, the crowd erupts in joyous applause.

This is their moment all right, and one beautiful person just showed an entire generation how to create change with help from a cold soda. It’s almost too easy to mock, but it does beg a bigger question: In an age when brands neatly notch into every part of our lives, is there a place for them in the protest conversation?

The short answer is “Not if they want to position their products as the solution.” Though companies have often tried to align with the movement of the moment, there’s rarely been a time when consumption (the driving force behind all ads) can fix what ails us. It’s pretty obvious that Pepsi is no more the remedy for police violence than handing our president a can of Tecate would quell his longing to build a border wall. Life just isn’t that easy.

Given the benefit of the doubt, Pepsi’s overarching point seems sound (which is perhaps why they initially defended it). Kendall offering a cop a Pepsi is essentially a statement of, “I get it, you have a hard job. We’re not saying that you, in specific, are a bad guy. You’re still a single human deserving of compassion.” In theory, that’s a worthy sentiment. The oft-suggested idea that you can’t be pro Black Lives Matter and pro police is deeply flawed, and compassion for the individuals embroiled in this dramatic moment in history is important. But in practice it plays as just a little too slick. The final product reads more like, “Wait everyone, I’ve got this, let me just give the cop a cold drink and your very valid concerns will fizzle into the ether like so many carbonated bubbles.”

Still, with the incredible sway we’ve ceded to brands, we can neither hope that they stay away from social issues nor should we want them to. Super Bowl ads celebrating the role immigrants play in America delivered the conversation to people who were trying to ignore it and reminded us of the very human stories behind our larger political discourse. 84 Lumber’s “The Entire Journey” and (to a lesser degree) Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” underscored our nation’s founding principles and will surely endure as useful entries into the current immigration conversation.

Perhaps what made Pepsi’s ad fall flat is that its governing principles seemed so mushy. The protesters came off as incredibly easy to pacify and their messaging felt like it was focus-grouped to death. By striving to be inoffensive, the ad did the opposite. It leaned on pop-psychology rather than making a firm statement. You can’t represent activism as an important part of how we progress, then scrub it of its meaning. Just like you can’t take activism’s potent urgency and repurpose it for brand speak — as Nike did in 1995 when they remixed Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” to make it about a shoe.

What we need from brands wanting to enter into conversations about our current political moment isn’t solutions but allies. We need companies that are brave enough to cosign movements without poaching them or dumbing them down. That can play out as earnestly as the 84 Lumber ad or as irreverently as Tecate’s brash entry into the border wall conversation.

To ask brands to avoid these issues altogether is pointless — both the issues and the companies permeate every part of our daily lives — but it is fair to say, “Don’t make it about you and your product. There are real concerns here and trivializing them doesn’t help.”