The View

How Pepsi overstepped the line

‘Pepsi’s marketing gurus probably sold this campaign as being amazingly on trend or maybe, like, real?’

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2017, 10:47am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 April, 2017, 10:42pm

It’s not hard to guess how the Pepsi disaster came about, you know the one where the company spent a fortune devising a media campaign fronted by the reality TV star Kendall Jenner, which was pulled within 24-hours of its launch.

Ms Jenner was seen in all her coolness joining a demonstration for something or other, peace was mentioned, so was a vague call for the people to join a conversation and then there was the moment when she offered a fit looking policeman a can of Pepsi.

Pepsi’s marketing gurus probably sold this campaign as being amazingly on trend or maybe, like, real?

As it turned out the almost immediate internet response to this fatuous advert was pretty real and filled with people clamouring to know why Pepsi thought it was smart to trivialise the various protest movements that have grown in intensity since the election of President Donald Trump.

The beauty of this Pepsi campaign is that its very non-specificity managed to annoy almost everyone who had taken to the streets or was thinking of doing so. The Black Lives Matter movement, for example, were not amused to see Pepsi seeking to cash in on street protests after being provoked by issues rather more profound than soft drink options.

You might just have thought this was pretty obvious, surely anyone with half a brain might have guessed that the current febrile political atmosphere would require a bit of careful handling or maybe, if you are in the soft drinks business, you might consider it wise to stay well away from that kind of stuff, especially as there really is no need to go there.

However the way these big corporations work is to have a lot of men in suits, and maybe some women in sober attire who do all the real stuff, like working the figures, getting the production lines humming and keeping the workforce, well, working while a rather different group of people are siphoned off into the public relations and marketing departments.

You can always spot them in these big corporations because, for a start, they tend to be younger and that bit more adventurous in their dress, some of them might even turn up to work in the sort of clothes the big bosses regard as verging on the dangerously casual.

They get away with this edgy kind of dress precisely because they are marketing themselves as the company’s edgiest folk, who are in touch with other trendsetters suggesting that they just might be able to identify with the young demographic that these stodgy old companies are trying to reach.

Their bosses are slightly bemused by these people, even to the extent of scepticism but they cling to the belief that in order to shift products they need to be marketed and that to keep the company in good odour it really helps to have a decent public relations operation. Yet, while they fully understand how the rest of the company works they are never too sure how this nebulous fringe activity works.

When they go to meetings and are told that this or that is very much of the moment or even the “coming thing” they can’t be too sure of the value of this information but, on the other hand, no one wants to be seen as old and stodgy and, perish the thought, out of touch. So when it is suggested that they need to be clambering aboard the latest trend, it seems only reasonable to do so.

Over at Pepsi HQ in the wonderfully named town of Purchase in New York, the marketing people must have spun a pretty good line about putting together a cool reality TV show star, a cohort of attractive looking multi-racial young people and a vague sort of “save the planet”- type theme to put good ‘ole Pepsi right up there on the cool register.

Maybe they were employing the same kind of thought process that came up with a line of T-shirts for Abercrombie & Fitch in 2002 depicting a series of “cool” Asian stereotypes. Not only were various Asian communities outraged, so were others who promptly organised store boycotts and the like. The company responded by saying, “we personally thought Asians would love this T-shirt”.

Pity, then, that A&F didn’t ask around a bit before misjudging what Asians might like.

And here’s the rub: it’s not easy for a big corporation to be cool and, generally speaking why should they even try? These marketing folk often try too hard and live in a funny little world of their own inhabited by people like themselves who are self conscious about being cool.

Mind you Pepsi has a way to go in the uncool stakes if United Airlines suggests it should become their drinks supplying partner.

Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster