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.
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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.