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The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad: A Case Study in When Social Justice Marketing Goes Awry

The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad: A Case Study in When Social Justice Marketing Goes Awry


This comprehensive blog post delves into the complexities of social justice marketing, using the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad as a case study. We explore how the ad, despite its good intentions, failed spectacularly due to a lack of authenticity, cultural appropriation, and poor choice of messenger. The post offers valuable lessons for brands considering social justice marketing, emphasizing the need for thorough research, genuine engagement, and expert consultation. In a world increasingly divided yet connected, the role of brands in shaping societal narratives is significant. However, this path is fraught with challenges that require careful navigation. Join us as we dissect what went wrong and why, offering a roadmap for brands aiming to make a meaningful impact

Wednesday - 27 September 2023

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The Complex Landscape of Advertising: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Social Justice Marketing

In the digital age, where consumer attention is fragmented across multiple platforms, the world of advertising is in a constant state of flux. Brands are no longer just competing for eyeballs; they're vying for hearts and minds. Traditional advertising methods are giving way to more nuanced and targeted strategies, designed to resonate on a deeper, more emotional level with consumers. One such strategy that has emerged from this evolution is social justice marketing.

What is Social Justice Marketing?

Social justice marketing is not merely a buzzword; it's a paradigm shift in how brands interact with their audience. It involves leveraging social, cultural, or political issues that matter to consumers as a way to promote a brand or product. The idea is to align the brand's values with causes that resonate with the public, thereby building a deeper connection and fostering brand loyalty.

The Double-Edged Sword

However, this form of marketing is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it offers brands an opportunity to stand out and make a meaningful impact. On the other, it exposes them to significant risks if not executed thoughtfully. The stakes are high; a poorly conceived campaign can not only damage a brand's reputation but also alienate its audience, sometimes irreparably.

The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad: A Cautionary Tale

The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad serves as a textbook example of how good intentions can go horribly wrong. Released in 2017, the ad aimed to tap into the zeitgeist of social justice movements, portraying a utopian scenario where a can of Pepsi could bridge societal divides. Unfortunately, the ad was widely criticised for trivialising the very issues it sought to highlight, leading to a PR disaster for Pepsi.

Why It's Tricky

The challenges in social justice marketing lie in the nuances. Social issues are complex, deeply rooted in history, and often fraught with emotion. A brand that seeks to engage in this space must do so with a high degree of sensitivity, understanding, and, above all, authenticity. Anything less can be easily perceived as opportunistic or exploitative, triggering a backlash that can be devastating both online and offline.

The Road Ahead: Lessons for Brands

As we delve deeper into this blog post, we'll dissect the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad to understand what went wrong and why. We'll explore the pitfalls to avoid and best practices to follow for brands aiming to venture into social justice marketing. The goal is not just to critique but to learn valuable lessons that can guide future marketing strategies.

In a world that's more connected yet more divided than ever, the role of brands in shaping societal narratives is significant. Social justice marketing offers a path for brands to be not just sellers, but storytellers, advocates, and even allies. However, this path is fraught with challenges that require careful navigation.

So, if you're a brand aiming to make an impact, buckle up. The road ahead is tricky, but it's also filled with opportunities for those willing to invest the time, effort, and sincerity required to get it right.

The Ad: A Detailed Dissection of Pepsi's Ill-Fated Campaign Featuring Kendall Jenner

In April 2017, PepsiCo, one of the world's leading beverage companies, released an ad that would soon become infamous for all the wrong reasons. The ad featured Kendall Jenner, a high-profile model and reality TV star known for her appearances on "Keeping Up with the Kardashians." The choice of Jenner was clearly aimed at attracting a younger, more socially aware demographic. But let's delve into the specifics of the ad to understand why it failed to resonate with its target audience.

The Setting and Characters

The ad opens with Kendall Jenner participating in a glamorous photoshoot, complete with makeup artists and photographers. Cut to a diverse crowd of young people marching through the streets, holding signs that vaguely allude to peace and love. The contrast is striking: Jenner's realm of luxury and fame stands in stark opposition to the raw, authentic world of social activism.

The Pivotal Moment

Jenner, seemingly inspired by the protesters, decides to abandon her photoshoot and join the march. She wipes off her lipstick, ditches her blonde wig, and strides purposefully toward the crowd. This moment is intended to signify Jenner's "awakening" to social issues, a transformation from a privileged celebrity to a socially conscious individual.

The Climax: A Can of Pepsi to Heal the World

The ad reaches its climax when Jenner approaches a line of police officers monitoring the protest. In a move that aims to symbolise unity and peace, she hands a can of Pepsi to one of the officers. The officer takes a sip, smiles, and the crowd erupts into cheers, as if a single can of soda has magically diffused the tension and resolved the issues at hand.

The Intended Message: Unity, Peace, and Understanding

The ad aimed to convey a message of unity, peace, and understanding. It sought to position Pepsi as a brand that understands the zeitgeist, that stands for progressive values, and that can bring people together. The imagery was designed to evoke a sense of harmony, suggesting that our differences could be set aside over something as simple as a can of Pepsi.

Where It Missed the Mark—Spectacularly

Despite its lofty intentions, the ad missed the mark in a significant way. It was widely criticised for trivialising the complexities of social justice movements and protests. The act of handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer was seen as an oversimplification of the issues at hand, reducing them to a marketing gimmick. The ad failed to recognize the gravity of the situations that real-life protests aim to address, such as racial inequality, police brutality, and social injustice.

While the ad aimed to promote unity, peace, and understanding, it ended up achieving the exact opposite. It sparked outrage and became a case study in how not to engage in social justice marketing.

The Backlash: A Timeline of Public Outrage and Brand Reckoning

In the age of social media, public opinion can be swift and unforgiving, and the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad was no exception. The backlash against the ad was both immediate and severe, serving as a stark reminder of the power of public sentiment in shaping brand narratives. Let's delve into the specifics of how the backlash unfolded and the lessons it offers for brands venturing into the realm of social justice marketing.

The Initial Reaction: Social Media Erupts

Within minutes of the ad's release, social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram were flooded with negative reactions. Critics accused Pepsi of trivialising the struggles associated with protests and social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality campaigns. The hashtag #PepsiAdFail began trending, and memes mocking the ad proliferated across the internet.

The Critique: Tone-Deaf and Simplistic

The primary criticism was that the ad was tone-deaf. It was accused of reducing complex, deeply-rooted social issues to a simplified, commercialised narrative. The act of Kendall Jenner handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer was seen as a gross oversimplification of the tensions between law enforcement and marginalised communities. Critics pointed out that a can of soda could not possibly solve systemic issues like racial inequality and police brutality.

Celebrity and Activist Voices Join the Chorus

The backlash wasn't limited to the general public. High-profile celebrities and activists also weighed in, amplifying the criticism. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted a photo of her father being confronted by a police officer, captioned, "If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi." Such powerful statements further fueled public sentiment against the ad.

Pepsi's Response: Pulling the Ad and Issuing an Apology

Recognizing the severity of the situation, Pepsi acted quickly. Within 24 hours of the ad's release, the company pulled it from all platforms and issued a public apology. The apology acknowledged that the ad had "missed the mark" and expressed regret for any offence caused. However, for many, the damage was already done.

The Aftermath: A Lesson in Brand Humility

The backlash served as a wake-up call for Pepsi and other brands contemplating similar marketing strategies. It highlighted the importance of cultural sensitivity, deep understanding of social issues, and the need for authentic engagement with audiences. The incident became a case study in how quickly public opinion can turn against a brand, and how severe the consequences can be when social justice marketing goes awry.

The backlash against the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad was a defining moment in the discourse around social justice marketing. It underscored the risks involved and the level of scrutiny brands are under when they venture into this sensitive territory.

 

Why It Failed: A Comprehensive Analysis of Pepsi's Missteps

In the realm of advertising, especially when it comes to sensitive topics like social justice, the margin for error is incredibly thin. The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad serves as a glaring example of how a well-intentioned campaign can go horribly wrong. Let's take a deep dive into the key reasons behind the ad's failure, dissecting each aspect to understand what went awry.

Lack of Authenticity: Missing the Emotional Core

One of the most glaring issues with the ad was its lack of authenticity. While Pepsi aimed to tap into the momentum of social justice movements, it was evident that the brand had not invested the time or effort to genuinely understand the complexities of these issues. The ad came across as a superficial attempt to capitalise on serious social struggles, thereby missing the emotional core that is crucial for any campaign dealing with such sensitive topics.

The absence of authenticity was felt at every level—from the vague protest signs to the overly simplistic resolution of complex issues with a can of soda. This lack of genuine engagement not only alienated the target audience but also led to accusations of the brand being opportunistic.

Cultural Appropriation: Commercialising Struggle

Another significant issue was the ad's appropriation of imagery and themes from real protests and social justice movements. By using these elements for commercial gain, Pepsi diluted the significance of events that have deep-rooted historical and emotional implications for many people.

For instance, the image of Kendall Jenner handing a can of Pepsi to a police officer was reminiscent of iconic photos from real protests, such as the flower power protests against the Vietnam War. By co-opting such powerful imagery, the ad trivialised the sacrifices and struggles associated with these movements, turning them into mere marketing gimmicks.

Poor Choice of Messenger: The Kendall Jenner Dilemma

While Kendall Jenner is undoubtedly a popular figure with significant social media influence, she was not the right messenger for an ad dealing with social justice issues. Jenner's public persona is not associated with activism or deep engagement with social issues, making her an odd choice for a campaign that aimed to resonate on a socio-political level.

Her involvement in the ad further emphasised its disconnect from the realities of social justice struggles. It gave the impression that the brand was more interested in leveraging her celebrity status for visibility rather than genuinely advocating for change or understanding.

A Confluence of Errors

The failure of the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad was not due to a single misstep but a confluence of errors. From a lack of authenticity and cultural appropriation to the poor choice of messenger, each aspect contributed to the ad's downfall. For brands looking to engage in social justice marketing, the ad serves as a cautionary tale, highlighting the importance of authenticity, cultural sensitivity, and a deep understanding of the issues at hand.

Lessons Learned: The Do's and Don'ts for Brands Venturing into Social Justice Marketing

The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad serves as a cautionary tale for brands considering social justice marketing. While the intention to engage with social issues is commendable, the execution must be flawless to avoid backlash. Here are some crucial lessons learned, distilled into do's and don'ts, to guide brands in navigating this sensitive terrain.

Do Your Research: Go Beyond the Surface

Do

Brands must invest time and resources in understanding the social issues they aim to address. This goes beyond reading a few articles or watching trending hashtags; it requires a deep dive into the complexities of the issues at hand. Brands should understand the historical context, the key players involved, and the nuances that make each issue unique.

Don't

Avoid making assumptions or relying on stereotypes. Surface-level knowledge can lead to tone-deaf campaigns that do more harm than good. Misinformation can not only alienate your audience but also contribute to the spread of harmful narratives.

Be Authentic: Align Actions with Words

Do

If your brand genuinely cares about a social issue, make sure that your actions align with your words. Authenticity is key in building trust and credibility. This could mean having a long-term commitment to a cause, making donations, or taking internal actions like diversifying your workforce.

Don't

Don't jump on the bandwagon just because a particular issue is trending. If your brand doesn't have a history of activism or involvement in social issues, suddenly adopting a cause can seem disingenuous and opportunistic. Audiences are savvy and can easily spot when a brand's engagement is superficial.

Consult Experts: Get the Right Voices in the Room

Do

Before launching a campaign centred around sensitive issues, consult with experts or activists in the field. Their insights can help ensure that your messaging is respectful, accurate, and impactful. This could involve focus groups, interviews, or partnerships with organisations that specialise in the issue you're addressing.

Don't

Don't assume that your internal marketing team has all the answers, especially when dealing with complex social issues. Failing to consult experts can result in a campaign that is not only ineffective but also potentially damaging to the cause it aims to support.

Tread Carefully but Courageously

Social justice marketing is a high-risk, high-reward endeavour. While the pitfalls are many, the potential for positive impact is immense. Brands have the power to amplify important issues, drive conversations, and even influence change. However, this power comes with responsibility. By doing thorough research, being authentic, and consulting experts, brands can navigate the tricky waters of social justice marketing more effectively.

Conclusion: Walking the Tightrope of Social Justice Marketing

The Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad serves as a compelling case study, a cautionary tale that underscores the fine line brands must walk when venturing into the realm of social justice marketing. The stakes are incredibly high; a misstep can not only tarnish a brand's reputation but also undermine the very causes it aims to support. So, as we conclude this comprehensive analysis, let's reflect on the critical factors that can make or break a social justice marketing campaign.

The Balancing Act: Good Intentions vs. Flawless Execution

While the intention to engage with social issues is commendable, it's the execution that ultimately determines the success or failure of a campaign. Brands must approach these issues with the sensitivity, respect, and authenticity they deserve. This involves a multi-faceted approach that combines thorough research, genuine engagement, and expert consultation. Anything less can lead to a public relations disaster, as evidenced by the Pepsi ad debacle.

The Risks and Rewards: A Double-Edged Sword

Social justice marketing is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it offers brands an opportunity to stand out, make a meaningful impact, and foster deeper connections with their audience. On the other hand, it exposes them to significant risks, including public backlash and reputational damage. Brands must weigh these risks carefully against the potential rewards, always keeping in mind the larger responsibility they have towards the social issues they are engaging with.

Your Take: A World of Possibilities and Pitfalls

So, what's your take on social justice marketing? Is it a viable strategy for brands aiming to make an impact, or is it a minefield too risky to navigate? The answer likely lies somewhere in between. With the right approach, social justice marketing can be a powerful tool for change, but it requires a level of commitment and understanding that goes beyond mere lip service.

As we navigate this complex landscape, your insights and opinions are invaluable. Share your thoughts, and let's delve deep into a world brimming with possibilities—and pitfalls.

 

 


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