Why Pepsi doesn’t deserve any forgiveness

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Pepsi Global/YouTube/Courtesy

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If you happened to come across Pepsi’s most recent video advertisement, you may have been surprised to discover the supposed suggestion that the simple solution to hundreds of years of racial tensions in American history lies in an ice-cold can of soda held in TV personality Kendall Jenner’s perfectly manicured hand. Or so many have interpreted from the soft drink magnate’s now infamous pulled ad entitled “Live For Now Moments Anthem.”

The unreasonably absurd ad depicts what appears to be a senseless parody of a Black Lives Matter protest, using vague symbols of peace and love that allow Pepsi to distance itself from taking a stand on the very issue it appears to exploit for commercial gain. What begins as inane, however, quickly escalates to insensitive as 21-year-old Kardashian clan member Kendall Jenner is shown shedding a blonde wig and smudging her rosy lipstick as she abandons a photoshoot to join the happy-go-lucky “protesters” who appear to be dancing and sipping Pepsi as they stand off against a loose barricade of unarmored policemen.

What results is perhaps the most thoughtless moment in recent advertising history in which Jenner, whose Kardashian-induced fame suggests that she is an embodiment of white socioeconomic privilege, waltzes up to the front lines of the pseudo-protest in a frame that resembles the iconic 2016 photograph of Baton Rouge protester Ieshia Evans sporting a simple sundress, standing in an act of defiance mere inches away from two heavily armored policemen. Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to a smiling and seemingly harmless cop and, in the blink of an eye, Pepsi seems to suggest that racial tensions and police brutality are a thing of the past.

Except they are not. Protests are not easygoing dance parties. The armored policemen who materialize at protests are not the vision of safety. People of color at the front lines of protests do not stand up to authority figures without the fear of a beating, arrest or the whistle of a bullet leaving the barrel of a gun.

When I first read the apology issued by Pepsi on Wednesday after pulling the ad, I was baffled that a major American company was able to raise its hands in defeat and slowly back away from its asinine attempt at connecting with its customers by exploiting the sensitive issues they are passionate about. The brand’s statement read, in part, “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue,” and “We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

It’s easy to infer what Pepsi seemed to attempt to accomplish in creating the controversial spot: it may be that the company wanted to associate its soft drink with the hankering for diversity, equal representation and unity amongst historically divided groups, a cornerstone of the liberal culture that’s occupied our thoughts and newsfeeds alike. Yet, in a perfect display of the pitfalls of the modern advertising industry, Pepsi appears to misconstrue the genuine intentions of protesters and supporters of movements for racial or gender equality. What’s worse is the possibility of Pepsi using these current events to generate profit, an action that would be a display of exploitation rather than connection to the brand’s consumers. A brand that does not risk its own reputation amongst its competitors by taking a strong stance about an issue should not have the right to use that very issue to characterize its products.

Perhaps the best evidence of Pepsi’s apparent complete disregard for the underlying issues surrounding racial tensions is the brand’s choice of Jenner as the brave “protester” who arrives just in time to accomplish what centuries of outcry by people of color have failed to do. By casting Jenner in the role of what can easily be interpreted as a white savior, Pepsi seems to make its priorities extremely clear: the revenue built from the recognition factor of a young, privileged model trumps the possibility of devaluing the efforts of groups such as Black Lives Matter.

As the advertising industry continues its attempts to retain the relevancy of companies by tapping into the “hot issues” that we, as consumers, express interest in, it becomes easier for brands such as Pepsi to use and abuse the media culture we surround ourselves with. As a woman of color, I have witnessed others devalue the passion, emotion and pain I have endured in my own struggle for equal representation. Yet each time I happen across this toxic concoction of an ad, I can’t help but feel degraded all over again.

But one silver lining has been born of what many suggest as Pepsi’s complete exploitation of the fight for equality: this ad most definitely did not leave me craving a can of the soft drink. And whether you are white or colored, male or female, gay or straight, that is something we can all agree on.

Contact Manisha Ummadi at [email protected].