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Advertising Pepsi Social Media

It's just not the real thing – Pepsi and the Kendall Jenner 'protest' ad controversy

By Andrew Eborn and Richard J. Hillgrove VI | Columnists

April 5, 2017 | 8 min read

Pepsi’s marketing department might be shaking their heads right now trying to work out why they’ve been trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. The answer’s simple. Pepsi, you’re not the real thing.

Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad

In its latest ad, we see reality TV star and model Kendall Jenner use a can of Pepsi as a peace offering to police during a protest. Really?

The Twittersphere has lit up because rather than see the “…global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony” that Pepsi's marketers intended, they see total disharmony in the message.

Protesters on social media have been quick to point out the incongruity of corporate America co-opting the resistance movement and featuring a privileged white supermodel who uses a can of soda as a peacemaker between civil rights activists and police. As if…

Pepsi’s slogan is 'live bolder, live louder, live for now' but it needs to reflect one crucial element – live your truth.

It really is a case of ‘The Quick and the Dead’ these days in terms of which brands can keep the life-blood pumping through their veins and which will suffer cardiac arrest.

The challenges posed for marketers in today’s manic media maelstrom, where consumers are largely immunised to marketing messages, are immense. Appearing invisible is every marketing manager's waking nightmare.

It’s making more and more brands radicalise their marketing, upping the ante to be edgier and edgier.

Increasingly risky brand strategies have been employed over recent years to blast through the clutter, from Dolce & Gabanna’s 2015 “gang bang” ad to Dove’s real women to Victoria’s Secret using practically pornographic images to sell lingerie.

Disruption is the marketing buzzword at the moment as we speed towards the tech-driven ‘Uberfication’ of every business.

Like Olympic shot-putters wanting to throw a weight the furthest, marketers are lining up with more and more radical tricks and stunts to gain attention and try to snare the lion’s share of precious voice.

We did it for the anti-fracking movement by coming up with gratuitous fracked babies with Vivienne Westwood, asbestos delivered to 10 Downing Street and a white UN tank driven to the front door of David Cameron’s Oxfordshire home on 9/11 in 2015. We got global viral coverage through sheer extremity and audacity.

But it needed to go deeper to have a longer lasting effect.

The tagline from Ridley Scott’s blockbuster Alien says it all: “In space no one can hear you scream.”

Without truly fundamentalist, deep-rooted Jihadi principles, no amount of extreme marketing is going to make more than a pin prick of difference ultimately. The PR bomb blast quickly fades just like the beautifully choreographed £1m new year’s fireworks display. It’s up in smoke in 15 minutes with nothing lasting to show for it.

For Red Bull, its 24-mile-high space-jump stunt through the sound barrier in 2012 wasn’t just a one-off, but the tip of a whole iceberg of speed and adventure activities – from sponsoring motorcyclists jumping on the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to planes racing a slalom course metres above the Thames in London.

The entire culture of Red Bull as a business is geared towards being one big, high-octane thrill ride. With Red Bull TV, the brand is quite literally at it 24/7.

A new era of PR fundamentalism is being catapulted into a landscape where the entire culture of a brand is geared towards its founding principles. Everything, including third-party marketing agencies, must goose-step in unison.

Just like the disciple Thomas in the Bible needing to touch the nail wounds on the hands of Jesus before he’d believe him to be alive, today’s consumers need to touch the wounds before they can call themselves brand believers.

Brands that are me-too and try to play at being raw, gritty and punk are tragic. There’s no resonance for the tuning fork unless the backstory rings true.

They’re quickly outed by millennials as frauds, disposed of and ignored.

The co-founder of Agent Provocateur, Joe Corré, burnt his £5m punk collection on the 40th anniversary of punk last year in disgust at the gratuitous appropriation of punk by the commercial sector and the state.

Punk was never about the music and it wasn’t meant to be nostalgic. It was vital and raw and real which made it authentic.

Corré is pretty punk in terms of everything he does, from his clothing brand A Child of the Jago, through to make-up brand Illamasqua, where he is brand director, pledging to be anti-facism and never knowingly selling to anyone that votes for Donald Trump.

This drives him. His businesses share his passion and social activist agenda. He also has a birth right to be in this space, being the son of Vivienne Westwood and punk creator Malcolm McLaren. Authenticity runs deep and is fundamental.

United Colors of Bennetton has very recently deliberately moved away from using posters that are just provocative. Now it uses its profits to drive real change, especially in the space of female empowerment.

United by Half, its Women Empowerment Program, launched in 2015. It is a sustainability programme for women that addresses issues such as equal opportunities, quality education, healthcare and violence.

Putting its money where its mouth is, Bennetton supports 5,000 - 6,000 women in Bangladesh by providing training courses. In Pakistan, 1500 women are to be supported. This is PR Jihadism at its best.

The renewable energy company Ecotricity has become less about being a company and more about being a cult of green evangelists. Ecotricity doesn't even have to be the cheapest to win brand loyalty.

Its founder, Dale Vince, is a former traveller and self-professed ‘non-businessman’ who started Ecotrocity by selling a wind-powered telephone service at the Glastonbury festival. He lives and breathes the brand as do all his staff – or should we say followers – in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Vince has made the menu at his football club, Forest Green Rovers, totally vegan, the first in the world. He makes a big point of personally answering each and every email or social media tweet.

Most importantly, Ecotricity also makes sure that each and every one of its suppliers follows the same green principles so there is no element of hypocrisy in their message or supply chain.

This way its green fundamentalist roots grow deep. Ecotricity’s vast tribal following of loyal customers would quite literally jump under an oil tanker for the company and what it stands for. Again, true brand fundamentalism at work.

Stella Artois partnered with and donated US$1.2m to its campaign to help change lives with safe water. Videos aim to get the message across, like the one with Matt Damon urging viewers to Be Legacy.

But how many cynical me-too cause-related marketing stunts are simply latching on to a trend? Far too many.

Bang on!

Bang On to Andrew and Richard on Twitter and email: @andreweborn @OctopusTV @6Hillgrove

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