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A month of controversy: United Airlines and Pepsi missteps fuel April's online chatter

By Amit Avner | CEO

April 28, 2017 | 5 min read

Every month there tends to be a theme that unifies the top trends of that month. For April, that theme was a new crop of brand related controversies.

Kendall Jenner

From Pepsi’s Tone Deaf Ad, to United Airlines’ PR nightmare, to Bill O’Reilly’s dismissal from Fox, April has been jam-packed with brands trying to avoid the controversial issues that became synonymous with these brands on social media.

Taykey analyzed the two big controversies, Pepsi’s Ad and United Airlines' violent video, and the audiences who drove online conversation until both brands had to release statements of apology.

Pepsi’s tone deaf ad

First, we saw a great deal of conversation surrounding Pepsi’s now infamous ad. Presumably, the intent of the “activist” ad was to appeal to millennials, a key demographic for the brand. Prior to April, 13-34 year olds drove the conversation surrounding the Pepsi brand online, with 52% of all conversations portraying the brand in a positive manner.


Interestingly, we found that the topic of ‘activism’ was mentioned 4.5x more by Pepsi’s audience than the general population, making it a significant and unique interest to this audience. Despite the general relevance of the ad’s approach, the ad’s result ended up offending the brand’s core audience.

pepsi audience

The most commonly used word when discussing this trend was Kendall Jenner, which was mentioned 13x more by Pepsi’s audience vs. the general population, and Black Lives Matter, which mentioned 6x more. On a relative basis, Pepsi’s offensive commercial actually generated 44% more conversation volume than United Airlines’ viral video. This is likely due to the ad’s millennial target which also tend to drive more online conversation overall. Despite the volume gap, sentiment for United Airlines plummeted to similar numbers as Pepsi, with the company reaching 71% negativity in surrounding online conversations.

volume difference

While Pepsi’s audience is split nearly 50-50 between men and women, this trend was driven predominantly by women outraged by Kendall Jenner’s flip and sanitized portrayal of a protester. Ultimately, Pepsi had the correct data about its audience’s interests but missed the mark with regard to execution. As a result, Pepsi’s sentiment has been on a downward spiral with 72% of conversations surrounding Pepsi shifting negatively on the day the ad was released. By the end of April, Pepsi still had 55% negative sentiment, demonstrating this ad might have lingering effects with Pepsi’s core audience.

United Airlines

Unlike Pepsi, United Airlines’ core audience demographic is a bit older with its most vocal online group coming from 35-44 year olds. This audience tends to speak neutrally about the brand with 54% of online conversation being neither positive nor negative.


However, the viral video of United Airlines sanctioning the violent removal of a man off of its plane sparked outrage among a much broader audience, as the trend demographics shows nearly all age ranges were discussing this trend equally.

audience controversy

Since the incident, United has tried to remedy the overbooking problem that plagues most airlines, but overall sentiment still remains negative. By the end of the month, sentiment was mostly negative or neutral, with only 15% positive online conversations surrounding the brand. It is clear that United Airline’s PR crisis will continue beyond April.

Overall, April’s big trends make it clear that brand’s can’t simply “go through the motions” to address their audience’s passion points and concerns. When communication isn’t genuine, the online backlash can be immediate and severe. These trends also underscore how quickly online sentiment can shift negative, but how long it takes to recover.

Top five trends that went viral

While controversy after controversy dominated headlines in April, we found five additional trends that also generated significant volume during the month. Here’s the list of the top five trends you might have missed along with a profile of the audience driving the conversation around each trend.

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Amit Avner is chief executive and founder of Taykey

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