Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Pepsi's New Ad Is a Total Success

[ed. See also: How Pepsi's ad backfired for Kendall Jenner.]

Before it’s an ad for shampoo or cat food or cola, every advertisement is first an ad for capitalism.

Without a privately-controlled industry jockeying to compete with one another for consumer dollars, there’s no need for advertising. People would wash their hair with Shampoo, and feed their cats with Cat Food, and quench their thirst with Cola. Without competition, there would be no need to advertise in the first place. Especially when it comes to commodities. There are some differences between colas—the taste and the ingredients, for example. But the main difference is on the can rather than in it. The branding, and the sensibilities that branding conveys.

Yesterday, Pepsi released an ad that takes a strong, if bizarre, brand position on contemporary politics. In the spot, dubbed “Jump In,” Kendall Jenner abandons a photo shoot to join a passing march. To do so, she sheds a blonde wig and slips in among a diverse throng of variously-toned participants in a seemingly-innocuous protest. Eventually, Jenner meets an equally innocuous policeman keeping order. She hands him a cold Pepsi, and the crowd of protesters rejoices. “Live for Now,” the spot concludes, topped by the Pepsi brand mark.

The ad has been almost universally panned online. A tone-deaf take on “protest as brunch.” An absurdist parody of the long, unfinished project of civil-rights activism in America. A trivialization of today’s street unrest.

All these criticisms are dead-on. But they don’t matter, because the ad is an undeniable success. Yes, true, it coopts the politics of protest, particularly as they surround race relations in America today. But that’s not the ad’s goal, so the public’s objection is ultimately irrelevant to Pepsi’s mission. The ad’s point is to put the consumer in a more important role than the citizen anyway. And to position Pepsi as a facilitator in the utopian dream of pure, color-blind consumerism that might someday replace politics entirely. (...)

Critics aren’t wrong to see the protest as a milquetoast mockery of the real agitation for social justice in the streets in America. In particular, the ad neuters one of the most memorable images of protest in recent memory, that of a woman facing-off with riot police in a mid-2016 Baton Rouge demonstration.

But the ad’s interpretive possibilities don’t end with this explanation. It’s equally possible to understand the Pepsi protest as a march for the power of Pepsi branding instead of social justice. It may seem preposterous or even revolting to advance this interpretation, but that doesn’t make it any less viable. After all, the ad ends with a clear admission of the march’s purpose: to deliver ice-cold Pepsi cola to the (prominently unmilitarized) police who quirkily mistook an innocent, branded march for a political protest.

At a time when so much is worthy of protest, it might seem insane to imagine a big company like Pepsi greenlighting such a tone-deaf take. But it’s equally likely that Pepsi is banking on this exact social anxiety as an invitation for branded levity. Today’s political climate is distressing for many people in America. For some of them, the answer to such distress is protest and agitation. But for others, salve comes in dreaming of a near future in which all that anxiety melts away, like a cool soda quenching a big thirst. (...)

The genius of this decision is that it satisfies everyone. The Kardashian fanatics got their Kendall Jenner fix. The agitators get to feel that they have successfully redressed a big brand company; a minor victory in a time of so many defeats. The earnest, probably-white folk who enjoyed Pepsi’s alternative to constant politicization got their saccharine status-quo—and now they also get a branded excuse to issue a counter-offensive against the progressives who insisted on bringing politics into innocuous soft drinks (surely it’s coming). The media get their scoops, and their thinkpieces (like this one). And these outcomes, incompatible though they are, all return attention to Pepsi—which is all it really wanted in the first place.

by Ian Bogost, The Atlantic |  Read more:
Image: PepsiCo