Summer McDonald

Writer | Editor

You Got the Right One, Baby?

I’m a bit confused. Well, perhaps I am simply unclear about why we choose what we choose. Pepsi removed its All Pepsis Matter ad after people responded negatively--much more negatively than focus groups, mind you--to it. The negative response, it seems, stems from the assertion that Pepsi trivialized the Black Lives Matter movement, among others, to sell pop. The gaffe was so egregious and ripe for sarcastic clapback that even Bernice King got in on the action of chastising the soft drink-maker for suggesting that we could stop all of this tension between police and civilians if, instead of protesting, Kendall Jenner took off her blond wig and gave a cop a Pepsi.

The choice to stop airing the commercial does not confuse me. The uproar which spurred the removal does, though. If the core issue with Pepsi--and by extension Kendall Jenner--is that they appropriated protest, or better yet, that they cashed in on the cultural capital of protest, then I’m not clear about why Pepsi specifically has been called out. After all, if that is the line we draw when it comes to the way corporations sell us stuff, then why have the following ads not been subject to a similar uproar and consequently pulled:

  • Amazon, for its “Old Friends” ad starring a rabbi and imam, both of whom use Amazon Prime to buy each other a knee brace. Here, religion, particularly efforts to combat post-9/11 anti-Muslim sentiments and the coordinating US policy, is trivialized for the sake of showing just how fast and easy Amazon Prime is.
  • Apple, for its “Live Bright” ad, which features Beyonce’s song “Freedom,” from her revolutionary Black Lives Matter/Black feminist, as the think-pieces tell me, artistic effort, Lemonade. Apple defanged and deployed the song to sell, well, a watch. Which, if I understand the rules of this game, should be offensive. After all, if the woke among us are talking about knowing what time it is, I suspect it is not a reference to, well, actual time (as indicated on an Apple watch).
  • Ford’s "Go Further" ad featuring Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free,” a bona fide civil rights anthem, that, in Ford’s hands, becomes a bona fide anthem to sell cars.
  • Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” ad, which is a fictionalized account of Adolphus Busch, founder of the company, and the anti-German sentiment he experienced while trying to start the business. Incidentally, there was a call to boycott this ad, but that call came from 45 supporters, who felt that the commercial would inspire people to disagree with 45’s stance on immigration.
  • 84 Lumber’s “The Full Journey” ad, which chronicled the journey of a Mexican woman and her daughter and their journey to the Mexico-US border. They arrive to discover a wall, but! there’s totally a door--made of lumber. 84 Lumber, presumably. This ad, too, received some criticism, and Fox refused to air the entire ad during the Super Bowl, but 84 Lumber was not compelled to pull the it.

Although these examples are just commercials I’ve seen over the last five months, this marketing tactic is hardly new. Each of these ads, and plenty that aired before them, is inspired by and in turn appropriates various political conversations concerning very real issues (religious tolerance, police killings, immigration, etc.) to sell its respective product. And none of these ads have been removed for the way that they use protest to peddle product. So why, exactly, is it the Pepsi ad that ruffles our feathers so? Is it a general dislike for Kendall Jenner and the other Kardashians, who have seemingly garnered their fame and fortune by dragging Black men to the sunken place and capitalizing off of that effort? Possibly.

Or maybe it’s because, Michael Jackson’s curl set aflame notwithstanding, Pepsi has particular relevance to Black people. In other spaces, I’ve mentioned Pepsi’s efforts, during the middle of the last century, to differentiate itself from other soft drink-makers, namely Coke, by addressing Black consumers respectfully. Two weeks ago, Major League Baseball celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. The very same year that Robinson integrated the MLB, Pepsi hired Edward F. Boyd, a Black man, to come up with a strategy to sell soda to Black consumers. Boyd, and the Black advertisers he hired, refused stereotypical images in their work and opted for respectful, bourgeois, Black-centered advertisements in magazines like Ebony and Jet to peddle pop to Blacks. The strategy worked. (Meanwhile, Coke very stridently differentiated itself, on racial terms, from Pepsi. It’s all very interesting stuff.)

I, for one, come from a Pepsi family. I have very distinct memories of my great-grandmother singing the Pepsi jingle to me (Pepsi-Cola hits the spot…), and although Pepsi was always in the cooler at the cook-out, it was a forbidden drink for us children. We were to choose among RC and the various flavors of Faygo (the chosen pop of the mighty midwest). Pepsi might as well have been beer or Crown Royal. If someone had told me I would get drunk drinking Pepsi, I would have believed them. As a child, it was a drink I fetishized and desired. Pepsi was special.

I cannot be sure, but I suspect that I’m not the only Black child with such memories. Pepsi was a Black drink. And perhaps it’s because of that that the response to the ad was so swift and scathing. How could Pepsi misread the group it had sold to for decades? Maybe we feel betrayed. Though it is a curious thing to feel betrayed by a corporation trying to sell us liquid diabetes--which brings us back to Kendall Jenner. Perhaps Pepsi’s gravest mistake was that it gave us a person that we could identify and blame. It’s a lot easier to single out a singular figure as a problem, but as the talks to boycott Pepsi in the aftermath show, the tentacles of corporations like Pepsi are far-reaching, and it’s much easier to hate another Kardashian than it is to get through the grocery store without having purchased a Pepsi product. In fact, if I were in the mood to entertain an asinine and thin conspiracy, I’d submit that Pepsi deliberately chose Jenner just in case things went awry.

Whatever the reason(s), the outrage seems to lack appreciation for the fact that this Pepsi ad is not unique. Using the narrative of the outsider--any outsider--to sell something to the masses is a rather banal event in the cycle of capitalism. As such, the ensuring outrage seems arbitrary--and selective. When we are selective in our outrage, that righteously indignant anger cannot engender justice for those who are actually aggrieved. The true challenge is to find a way to articulate anger in a way that does.