Pepsi’s Not Tone Deaf, They’re Assholes

Last week in the can opening heard round the world, Kendell Jenner solved racism in Pepsi’s crap ad posted below–please watch at your own discretion and preferably not while you are eating.

The ad takes the markers of recent civil resistance and boils it down to some musical hipster millennials that conveniently come in a one-of-each variety pack.  As you can imagine, the internet, led by the beacon of black twitter, lost its mind and Pepsi pulled the ad off the air within 24 hours.  A flurry of news coverage and talk show segments roundly condemned the ad as tone deaf, as brilliantly portrayed in this skit on SNL (below).  The week ends with a bunch of high fives as we congratulate ourselves on a moment of shared outrage across racial lines.  We can all agree here–tone deaf.

But you know your girl here has a different opinion.  I disagree that Pepsi was tone deaf. And SNL’s skewering of the ad? It seems to portray the ad’s producers as hapless creatives who didn’t listen to their black friends–of course, they couldn’t be expected to see the problem on their own, and of course, there was no ill intention.  That’s not a skewering, that’s an excuse.

Pepsi has a long history off co-opting outsider youth culture and dragging it into the mainstream, redefining it for the masses in the process.  More than mere celebrity endorsements, Pepsi’s slogan of Pepsi Generation, and later Generation Next specifically seeks to align itself with and define youth culture. Ads like those starring Brittany Spears or Michael Jackson intentionally seeks to mirror a more mainstream, palatable and- profitable–version of whatever that year’s young people like.

Whether it is the hippies of the 70’s, the magic of Michael Jackson in the 80’s or even the girl power of the Spice Girls in the 2000’s Pepsi’s brand is all about creating a reductionist version of youth culture to sell to sugar water to the masses. Decade after decade, Pepsi has traded on what young people think is cool, targeting products at various youth subcultures–like Mountain Dew for motor-bikers.

What’s more, Pepsi also has a long history of targeting black consumers.  In the 1940’s Pepsi even had a negro marketing department, according to this fascinating article about how soda is racist af.   So no, Pepsi is not tone deaf, they are crafty, capitalizing on the very cultures they misrepresent and have been for decades.

And that brings us back to this latest disaster of social-justice-y porn.  In the Kendall Jenner ad, Pepsi hits every corner of a very diverse youth demographic–every race, a good mash up of random instruments and dance steps, a Muslim woman–enamored of course with Kendell’s stunning display of white feminism–hipsters with and without beards, gentrifiers with and without signs, and activism decidedly without any ideology. Pepsi sucked the life, passion and meaning out of the very real revolution happening in this moment of time and turned it into a moving stock photography image.  But taking the depth, meaning, and messiness out of life to sell product isn’t going to stop with this one ad getting taken down.  Look around you.  Everywhere advertisers are cashing in on our deepest feelings and most fervent hopes.  As altruism, connection, activism, and awareness have become trending ways of being, advertisers are increasingly using these most meaningful qualities to sell shit.

This State Farm ad is touching and heartwarming, and like the Pepsi ad features a diverse cast of characters starring a white savior with the power to transform the life of the poor, downtrodden, and brown.  While this ad is moving and inspiring as opposed to Pepsi’s abomination, both ads seek to use your positive feelings towards creating a better world to sell you product.  Both ads ignore any structural analysis of what social movements are seeking to disrupt.  Both ads put the power of individual white people as the simple answer that can eradicate widespread social injustice. Pepsi’s ad went too far and was condemned, but the State Farm ad was embraced

Ads selling us back the very essence of who we are are everywhere. When ads with social themes are done poorly, it’s good to see that consumer pushback can force advertiser accountability.  When they are done carefully, they make us smile, feel nice–and buy more.  In order to have broad appeal, the complex and controversial edges of life are sanded off in favor of a lighter, happier look at our world–one where products can often solve the worst problems in 30-60 seconds. Staying woke means making sure that you don’t allow capitalism to sell you back your fight against capitalism and other unfair systems.  Now that Pepsi has your twitter fingers warmed up, stay on the look out for capitalists in activists’ clothing.

 

 

 

 

 

Susan X Jane

Susan Jane thinks a lot about media and race…a lot. She teaches Communications at Wheelock College, writes and speaks about media…and race... and generally encourages everyone she meets to think about the way media shapes their sense of self and their ideas and beliefs about the world. If you're reading this, she wants you to think about it too. Want to talk about it? Let's go.

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