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What the %^&* are they drinking at Pepsi? It’s not cola, it’s Kool Aid.

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 12 Apr, 2017
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Pepsi's terrible ad shows the dangers of in-house agencies and leaving creativity to non-experts.

Last week the ad world was all of a flutter over an ad by Pepsi starring Kendall Jenner.

It is probably the worst ad you will see this year. (A competitive field, to be sure).

Or indeed you may never see it, as Pepsi have quite rightly pulled the ad and apologized to everyone involved including Kendall Jenner for “putting her in this position.”

How did a global brand like Pepsi put themselves into this position? The ad it screened is so culturally tone-deaf that Saturday Night Live have done a skit about it and everyone is laughing at them.

Pepsi made one simple, but very significant mistake. They thought anyone could make creative work. They were so very, very wrong.

Have you seen the ad? It’s hilariously bad. In case you were on vacation last week, here’s how it goes: for more than two minutes, we see a cellist, a Muslim woman in hijab and Kendall Jenner join a diverse crowd of street protesters who are marching for some nondescript cause. The cops are there. Kendall hands one a Pepsi. Everyone’s happy.

One critic wrote: “When you decode the spot you get a whole different story — all you people of colour can prance about all you like but it takes a beautiful white girl to really make something happen.”

Another wrote: “How completely insanely clueless do you have to be to create a “protest march” in which everyone is beautiful, everyone is under 25, and no one is angry? And someone is holding a sign saying “Join the conversation.” Really? Join the fucking conversation?”

The ad has been dubbed the worst kind of “virtue signalling”, Pepsi clumsily rubbing our noses in their virtue.

After it went viral – and not in the way that Pepsi hoped, I bet – the brand crumbled.

“We did not intend to make light of any serious issue,” Pepsi said. “We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

I wonder what Celeb will answer the call when next they want to do a TV spot? My guess is they will insist on “danger money.”

Luckily, some ad execs in the UK were quick to rush to Pepsi’s defence. Hey, they said, we all make mistakes and it doesn’t matter anyway.

“It will create waves in our industry, but the brand will go largely unaffected where it matters,” said one leading exec to me. “In the supermarket aisles, will anyone assess the offer [a can of Pepsi] as anything other than value ?”

Leaving aside why Pepsi would make an advert that they hope has no impact whatsoever on sales, what about the incipient racism of the ad? Wouldn’t that dent the Pepsi brand?  The Atlantic has a hot take, that to me, seems like denialism at its most warped.

“The co-option of specific scenes of protest, offers an alternative reality in which people line the streets to share soda rather than to lament (or defend) racial inequity. If only everyone would first identify as a consumer, reasons Pepsi, then they wouldn’t have to see one another as black or white, man or woman, citizen or immigrant.”

OK, we all make mistakes, but rather than being “not as bad as it looks” I think the opposite is true. Pepsi’s ad debacle is much, much worse than it appears.

Look, I have worked in communication long enough to know that what you do is who you are. If Pepsi think this is a “good ad” they are not drinking cola, they are drinking the Kool Aid.

The ad was created by Pepsi’s in-house content studio.

According to Digiday, Pepsi “hoped (it, the content studio) will let marketers, not agencies, sit in the creative driver’s seat.”

Well now, the mists begin to clear. The Kendall Jenner ad is exactly the type of box-ticking exercise that would get made by process-driven marketers.

Here is the cruel yet crucial truth: you can get business strategy from one million different consulting firms. You can find media planners and buyers under every stone. You can even buy data by the truckload with two clicks of a mouse. The one thing every successful marketer needs — and the one thing agencies can provide better than anyone else — is imaginative ideas about brands.

Creativity is hard. “We’re all creative” or “Creative ideas can come from anywhere” are nice things to say, but they are simply not true.

Doing a practical job in a creative manner is not the same as creating something unique from scratch.

Or as one critic has put it, the guy who printed the tickets to Hamlet, or made the popcorn, or counted the proceeds, may have found creative ways to do so. But he didn't write the play.

Marketers need to remind themselves once again that the most effective way to build brands is through the unmatched power of great advertising ideas. Studies suggest a great piece of creative can improve a message’s efficacy by a factor of ten.

Ads need to be beautiful and interesting and entertaining, not a series of marketing memes stitched together into one disappointing whole.

Next time, Pepsi, leave it to the professionals.

Oh, and whatever you do, don’t tell anyone to “join the conversation.”

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