Pepsi vs. Coke (Or: The Very Fine Line of Exploiting Current Events to Sell Your Product)

Two ads.

Two soft drinks.

Two groups of beautiful, ethnically diverse 20-somethings.

Two relevant counter-cultural movements.

Two messages of peace, love and unity.

Two very different receptions.

A simple lesson on why it went so darn well for Coca-Cola and so down-right horrible for Pepsi.

Act I: I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke (And Make Billions of $$$)

Unless you grew up in an apocalypse-proof bunker like Kimmy Schmidt, you’ve seen this famous 1971 Coca-Cola advertisement.

When Don Draper (not really) came up with this ad while sitting on a hilltop in southern California, the country was experiencing a great cultural shift amid an era of increasing global instability. The protests of the Civil Rights and antiwar movements had headlined the newspapers for years as the Cold War and nuclear arms race tensions ebbed and flowed. The country appeared to be fighting (or searching) for its soul with the juxtaposition of the sexual revolution; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., President John F. Kennedy, his brother and senator Robert Kennedy and Malcolm X; the steady rise in drug use; and the dramatic fall of religious observation. As in all uncertain times, good folks long for the real thing — togetherness.

Coca-Cola saw its opportunity. Coke could be that vehicle for harmony. The line “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” conveys a moment of pause, of shared experience and understanding. Coca-Cola was telling us that with so much violence and hatred, it’s the small acts of kindness — like sharing a Coke — that will win the day in the end.

The beautiful and multicultural younglings singing together were ushering in a new era. No longer the greed and selfish abandon of our fathers, but an era of love, peace, sharing and mutual respect. And Coke, “the real thing,” will help them achieve this goal.

Coming hot on the heels of the Civil Rights movement, the multiracial gathering subtly hinted that the new America was a diverse America, and we need to be cool with that.

A big gamble.

If people feel like your ad campaign is explicitly taking advantage of real-world situations, especially ones that involve human suffering, to sell a product, it could have devastating results. But Coke walked the tightrope. They stayed away from exploiting actual events and instead hinted at the Utopian alternative everyone craved for — with Coke at the center, of course.

It went off without a hitch. The public ate it up, and it became one of the most iconic and groundbreaking commercial advertisements in American history. It was so popular, in fact, the song created for the commercial became a hit record.

Well done, Coca-Cola.

ACT II: Jump In! (to the Internet-Fueled Fires of Public Condemnation)

Again, unless you have lived off the grid as a beet farmer and just now stumbled across some internet by chance, you are aware of the now-infamous Pepsi ad starring Kendall Jenner.

Like 1971, today’s cultural and political climate is rather unstable. The talking heads of partisan news outlets and the á la carte flavor of truth-telling, to which all too many of our politicians and leaders have subscribed, has fanned the flames of general misunderstandings and intolerance between people.

Internationally, the awakening of the Russian bear, the rise of proto-state militant groups like ISIS and Boko-Haram, and our “What are we really?” relationship with our allies has Americans nervous, as does the rise of violent nationalism, police brutality and responding protests, and the general struggle over the “culture war” domestically.

Time for a soft drink to save the day, right? It worked before!

This time around, Pepsi seizes the opportunity. Like Coke, it would try to express the longing of the younger generation for peace and harmony through advertising. Unlike Coke it sought to do so by emulating a real counter-cultural movement: Black Lives Matter. And unlike the nameless faces of the hilltop Coke ad, Pepsi crowned Kendall Jenner, whose family needs no introduction, to be the symbol of the movement.

At the climax of the ad, Jenner, a new addition to the feature protest, coyly hands a Pepsi to a police officer and saves the day.

Pepsi branding, hip music, a positive message, beautiful people drinking Pepsi and a celebrity are colorfully utilized to create a culturally sensitive and relevant Pepsi ad that is in tune with the world around them — and all with Pepsi as the vehicle for peace. Did I mention Pepsi was involved?

So how was it met by the public? Well, the gods of public opinion were not pleased with PepsiCo. The company received near universal condemnation across the country. Social media and late night comedians had a field day with this ad. The protest advertisement was being protested by everyone, including Bernice King, daughter of Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. It was the laughingstock of bad public relations (until the United Airlines episode).

Pepsi pulled the ad and apologized:

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

So what happened? Four things that doomed Pepsi’s ad stick out to me:

  1. Unlike the Coke commercial, which came across as authentic, this came across as contrived. Attaching celebrities to movements where they don’t belong in order to sell a product is obviously insincere. Coke avoided this by using only extras.
  2. Your product does not solve problems. We all know handing a Pepsi to a police officer does not make the problem go away, and Pepsi seemingly trivialized something that we should take seriously. Coke avoided the pitfalls of current events by showing a kind of alternate reality.
  3. The Pepsi hand off obviously echoes the famous and powerful photograph of Ieshia Evans defying the police in a Black Lives Matter protest. This could have been effective from a marketing standpoint except for the fact that Ieshia was black and ultimately was arrested after the photo was taken, and Jenner is white and got to dance in the street. The faux pas of replacing an African-American teacher with a white celebrity who’s famous for being famous in an ad that echoes a Black Lives Matter protest was lost on few. It is of no surprise that the country is divided on protest movements, such is the nature of things in contemporary America, but generally everyone has recognized that at least this one thing doesn’t sit right.
  4. Lastly, the internet does not forgive, boys and girls. Once the ball of shame gets rolling, it doesn’t stop. There is no mercy for the misstep on the almighty interwebs, and the bigger the name the harder they fall. The social media echo chamber also has a tendency to exaggerate the egregiousness of any situation, so any miscalculation can quickly turn into a moral injustice. Perhaps if social media had been around in 1971, Coca-Cola would have caught some flak for something.

Conclusion

On the surface these two ads seem similar, but one correctly waded through possible issues and was a groundbreaking success story, and the other fell headlong into every possible pitfall and is being universally scorned.

Wait, I take it back. Pepsi did bring us all together, just at its own expense.

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