Pepsi: What Went Wrong?

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Yesterday's furore over Pepsi's new Kendall Jenner-starring commercial garnered opprobrium not only from the industry but the world - ie the internet - at large.

Pepsi has since pulled the in-house created commercial and released a statement, below, explaining their thinking behind the offending spot. Creative Sam Walker has already given his in-depth analysis of what went wrong, but we also asked a number of clients and creatives from the industry how they think a high-profile TV spot for a high-profile client featuring a high-profile celebrity got to the airwaves without someone saying, "hang on a minute, are you sure about this?"




"For any brand to think or portray themselves as being able to heal divisions and deep, complex issues is frankly astonishing. Hijacking social and culture movements for commercial gain is nothing new but this trivialises important issues on a whole new lower level.

This must have been created in a bubble, with lots of nodding heads, believing their own hype. Yes, they seem to be aware that people aren't happy with lots of things happening in the world, but to believe that these problems can be overcome with a sugary drink and a celebrity (who represents elitism and the rich) is a poor call at best. I think I'll stick to tap water. 

On the plus side for Pepsi, it's the most famous they have been in decades."

Tom Rainsford, brand director, giffgaff

"By offending everyone [Pepsi] has certainly cracked the indifference problem.

So how did it make it to air? Let’s blamestorm! What dark forces led to this now-cancelled monument to tone-deaf badvertising? All the usual suspects are in the line-up; data-driven marketing, adcepts, group think, pre-testing, co-creation, 'there’s no such thing as a bad idea', 'everyone’s a creative', cause-related marketing and filter bubbles. Take your pick. I’m going to be optimistic and suggest that perhaps the real target audience said that they liked it.

One thing that agencies have always brought their clients is perspective – we work with multiple brands, audiences and cultural reference points. In-house teams don’t have the same broad horizon leading to this kind of myopic output."

Alistair Beattie, Co-CEO, DDB & Tribal Worldwide, Amsterdam


"It’s easy to sneer when a big corporation gets something so wrong but how did it happen? 

Let’s look at the ingredients; a social media celebrity, a very current and potentially dangerous scenario, a moment of kindness and humanity amongst the angry confrontation and finally a happy ending instead of tear gas and a baton charge. 

It made me think that this could be the kind of ad conceived by an AI creative; interesting ingredients but a complete lack of the self-awareness that should have had them writing more scripts instead of going into pre-production on this one."

Peter Murphy, creative director, Hunterlodge Advertising

[The Pepsi spot is reminiscent of a 1999 Chemical Bros video, below, directed by WIZ]

"The original inspiration for my Chemical Brothers film came from The Clash lyric: 'Huh, you think it’s funny turning rebellion into money’, crystallizing a deep felt anger that when it comes to the profit margin, absolutely nothing is sacred, not even heartfelt expressions for social justice. We made this film in 1999, however, today the inevitable has materialised: it’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy.



If you were ever in doubt about the carnivorous nature of advertising, then this Pepsi ‘spot’ says it all. It so insults everyone’s intelligence that it’s disturbing, what is this culture that we choose to live in that engenders such naked cynicism? Is advertising the pornography of capitalism; Vanillarising our expressions of outrage, cashing in on the very frustrations that this system creates? Right now, big business is laughing, clutching our hard earned dollar and hard earned dignity all the way to the bank. Our love, our sweat, our beauty is being sold back to us, two for the price of one.

Yet can this travesty be a wake up call? To us all and to those in front of the camera as well as behind. No longer will we be prostitutes, no longer will we be muppets. Power to the people."

WIZ, director

"Offensive in its inoffensiveness. The problem with the Pepsi ad is its sanitising of political protest voids it of any meaning or relevance.  

To me it reeks of creative by executive committee; tick boxes informing the narrative content rather than an actual idea. The fact that the ad was produced in-house might have had some bearing. We can only speculate that an external creative agency - free from internal politics, with an unbiased view of the brand - may have been bold enough to successfully follow through with the themes at play. The in-house team have taken less creative risks to avoid controversy, but have instead courted ridicule."

Osagie Samuel, creative director at The Specialist Works


"Pepsi used to be the brand for a New Generation, however the new connected and very astute millennial generation has derided this ad for its lack of authenticity. 

The advert is tone deaf and I can only put this down to a complete lack of perspective from Pepsi. Working in-house carries the risks of working in a bubble and without enough people in the process, it is hard to objectively evaluate the output. This ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ culture can lead to mistakes without the proper checks and balances in place."

Sean Kinmont, Founding Partner & Creative Director, 23red  


"What this debacle with Pepsi has really highlighted is the real upside to working with an external agency. An in-house creative department just doesn’t allow the distance for objectivity and critical analysis. When you’re making vital decisions about the direction, look and feel of a campaign, you need voices that are detached from the inner-workings of the brand, the people involved and the insular nature of the business."

Nicholas Gill, Founder & Strategy Partner at Team Eleven

"You have to believe that Pepsi’s starting point was well-meaning. The intention was clearly to be positive and affirming, to take a stand and recognise the zeitgeist. But that the minorities actors in the ad play supporting roles to Kendall Jenner, who herself looks shoehorned into the wider narrative, results in tokenism and undermines the whole premise of the appropriated protest imagery. That’s before you try to make the mental leap that Pepsi can succeed where successive governments and organisations failed. The premise is just a leap too far and ends up as a whitewashed platitude. 

That the ad was produced in-house might have bypassed the constructive tension and critique of ideas between client and agency, crucial to any strong creative development. But, let’s not forget, agencies have created monstrosities of equal proportions. Treat Pepsi kindly, we’re all cringey when we try too hard."

Sam Evans, strategist at The Partners


"Pepsi was obviously trying to be somewhat ‘purposeful’ and ‘activist’ in its approach.  However, the fact is, the moment it ran into controversy, they pulled everything.  That speaks directly to actual lack of sincerity, authenticity and understanding of the issues they were trying to jump on. Forget greenwash, we now have ‘Pepsi-wash'."

Jason Foo, CEO at BBD Perfect Storm

"To be honest, I have no idea how this made it to air, particularly when the positioning of the brand is that someone white is saving the day. How can we still be getting this shit so abominably wrong? I’ve no idea how Kendall Jenner’s people thought it was good idea, unless of the course the Dead Presidents sent the respective moral compasses hay-wire. Or perhaps her agents thought this kind of crap would reinforce her image as a poster girl for millennials, but in a more diverse way?"

Neil Hughston, CEO and co-founder, DUKE

Click here for more on this story as we ask 'what can we learn from Pepsi's marketing mishap?'