This week, after a new, activism-themed ad from Pepsi fizzled when it was met with backlash on social media, the late-night host Jimmy Kimmel told his audience, "The fact that this somehow made it through—I can't imagine how many meetings, and edits, and pitches, and then got the thumbs-up from who-knows-how-many people is absolutely mind-boggling.”
With one marketing firm estimating that at one point this week, roughly three-quarters of social-media engagement around the phrase “tone-deaf” mentioned Pepsi or the ad’s star, the 21-year-old model Kendall Jenner, Kimmel was articulating a widespread bafflement: How does a company—a major global brand worth more than $150 billion—make a multimillion-dollar advertisement that it later has to pull, conceding that it had “clearly missed the mark”? How could a bunch of well-paid, supposedly zeitgeist-fluent copywriters, art directors, and marketing executives have agreed that, indeed, the message the company should put out into the world is that the soda they were promoting is what can bring the country together at a fractious time?
The specifics of an answer may never be made public—I received no response after asking Pepsi about it—but it’s not as if the process for producing an ad like Pepsi’s is an unknowable mystery. Based on conversations and email exchanges I had with marketing professors and people who work in the advertising industry, it’s possible to piece together what goes into making a costly, celebrity-featuring ad like the one Pepsi put out—who made which decisions, and when. The advertising experts I talked to identified some of the pitfalls that can arise in such a process, which some of them estimated might have lasted around six to eight months, cost several millions of dollars, and involved somewhere between 20 and 50 people.