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.
* * *
Controversy is no stranger to consumer marketing today. In early 2016, Coca-Cola launched an online ad campaign that let users overlay their own taglines onto GIFs of people enjoying the company’s soft drinks. Aware of the dangers of user-generated content, Coke built a many-thousand-entry “profanity API” to prevent objectionable ads. Writing about the campaign last year, I cataloged the various concepts Coke knew it didn’t want people to associate with its brand. Those included vulgarity, drugs, and other brand names—but also weirder things, like references to science, music, and even tacos.
But it still couldn’t stop people from making Coke GIFs that mocked the company directly. For a time, social media swelled with user-generated sneers at Coke, fashioned by means of the very tool that was meant to prop the brand up. Take that, capitalism! Hoisted on its own petard.
The only problem: Capitalism is an immensely resilient institution. The ironic, contra-Coke GIFs couldn’t help but become transformed back into brand-compatible Coca-Cola messaging. Even the neo-Marxist agitators fashioning Coke-facilitated critiques of consumer capitalism might occasionally drink soft drinks. And when they do, their brains will have to contend with the dissonance of feeling affinity for Coca-Cola, thanks to the company having facilitated sneers at its own expense.
The Pepsi “Jump In” ad plays a similar trump card. In a statement, the company claims that the spot “captures the spirit and actions of those people that jump into every moment.” In so doing, according to Pepsi anyway, the brand unites people from different backgrounds around the shared delight of refreshment. For those predisposed to an apolitical reading of consumer advertising—and let’s face it, that’s most people—the result might land near its target, even if it doesn’t do so with the memorable aplomb of, say, Coca-Cola’s famous 1971 “Hilltop” ad.
But those who object to the ad’s brazen appropriation of political malcontent in general and organized protest in particular also have a role to play in Pepsi’s proposal for brand unity. The march shown in the ad is so nondescript as to invite offense. The supposed protesters carry generic signs: Peace, many read, or Unity. Another sign reads, “Join the Conversation,” a glib quip often used by media companies and brand marketers to spur engagement on social media or website comment sections. Here too, Pepsi wins in advance. For what else are the rightfully-angry critics of “Jump In” doing but “joining the conversation?” That call is clearly being met by everyone yammering against it on social media. To embrace all voices and perspectives isn’t a bad bet for a commodity soft-drink manufacturer.
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.
Pepsi steps in here, offering a hypothetical resolution to politics by a more powerful force in America—consumer capitalism. The cooption of specific scenes of protest, like the Baton Rouge moment, 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. Don’t be surprised; After all, people don’t buy cola for its social realism. They buy it to feel good about themselves, even if temporarily. And let’s be real: that’s also why people post on social media, in large part.
* * *
In 2008, Pepsi changed its brand mark to the current, off-axis rendition of the longstanding swirly-circle. The next year, a document circulated online, claiming to be a design strategy document from the agency that managed the rebrand. It was a thing of ghastly nonsense, mixing references to art and philosophy with obfuscated drafting guides for the geometries of vessels and brand images. Dubbed a sphere, the Pepsi brand was theorized as a cosmic body, with gravitational pull that might naturally draw shoppers toward it in supermarkets. Pepsi reportedly paid $1 million for this consulting service.
Is it real? That’s the first question most sensible people ask about the branding document. But in truth, it doesn’t matter. Brand marketing is black magic, conducted largely to eke out incremental changes in consumer commodity purchasing behavior. And within the corporate world, chief marketing officers and brand managers also need to establish and maintain their own future necessity. Part of capitalism’s job is to reproduce itself.
But even if the branding document is not real, it might as well be, and it easily could be, which is not much different. After the document’s leak in 2009, some media outlets reported that “others believe it is a clever hoax released as part of a ‘viral marketing campaign’ by the drinks firm to get attention on the internet.” Plausible enough.
And so too, the “Jump In” ad succeeds even in its failure. As I write this, The Wall Street Journal reporter Jennifer Maloney reports that Pepsi has seen the error of its ways and plans to pull the ad. “Clearly we missed the mark,” the company’s statement reads. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.”
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.