For the past couple of days, social media has been in gleeful uproar over the latest publicity gaffe by a massive brand. Pepsi’s misfired advert features Kardashian spawn Kendall Jenner brokering peace between a crowd of blithely protesting hipsters and the police, who conveniently forgot to bring their taser guns to the party – starring a can of Pepsi as the olive branch.
I could deconstruct all the ways that this is a Bad Ad, but the exercise would be redundant as hundreds have already done so. What it comes down to is the ironic dissonance of a mega-brand so huge it’s an emblem of consumer capitalism, trying to co-opt the anti-establishment imagery and messaging of social activism in order to sell not-Coke. Nobody bought it.
The ad has nonetheless manufactured a “Pepsi moment”, uniting consumers of culture and soda around the world in agreement that it was seriously dumb. I’ve been tracking the evolution of my own responses to this cultural blip.
When I first saw the ad, I was struck with incredulous hilarity; I linked it to a bunch of friends so I could glory with them in our mutual understanding of its terribleness. In the first few hours, before the story had grown to monstrous proportions, the vibe was that of an enlightened posse sharing an in-joke at the expense of a big stupid corporation. My pleasure in the experience largely came from the sense of exclusivity it evoked. Pepsi represented something mainstream and powerful that, in ridiculing, I could define myself against. By setting the standard for commercial imbecility, Pepsi made me (and thousands of others) feel confirmed as an intelligent, culturally astute individual.
As more people “joined the conversation” (to quote one of the “Diet Woke” protest banners in the ad), I felt a tiny surge of triumph with every merciless new meme. There I was, being vindicated by all these smart funny people!
I can now say with certainty that I have scoffed at the same thing as Bernice King, and that is a cool feeling.
But as the day progressed and the story gained traction, more and more people joined the Pepsi backlash on my Facebook newsfeed – people who I don’t think are smart or funny. Finding the video absurd no longer made me feel clever. The sheer quantity of people who agreed with me diluted the elite value of my discernment. By Thursday I had seen it reported from the same angle on BBC news. Opposition to Pepsi had lost its counter-cultural sheen and seemed as mass-market as the beverage itself. Which, with predictable contrarianism, I now feel inclined towards.
I’m not really one for brand loyalty. Prior to this fiasco, I was neutral on the issue of Coke v Pepsi – but now Pepsi holds a salacious allure. Unanimous disparagement has defanged any harm in the advert and made of Pepsi an improbable underdog that people love to hate.
Madonna threw in her lot by posting an Instagram photo of herself smugly clutching, and dressed like, a can of Coke. The reason she gave Coke free advertising was to denounce the culturally oblivious consumerism that Pepsi has come to represent in this debacle. To reiterate: a scenario has arisen in which Coke symbolises the opposite of oblivious consumerism. Hundreds of people on Twitter pledging to switch to Coke apparently agree.
The garish spectacle of Madonna using Coke to virtue-signal makes hapless Pepsi seem like the cooler alternative to me. The Coke brand can capitalise on the veneer of trendiness and righteousness it’s just gained, while Pepsi is socially inept and the butt of everyone’s jokes. I’d personally rather align myself with the latter values than be woke with Coke.
It’s not as if I now think the ad was any less terrible. It was moronic and insensitive; it deserved every bit of ridicule it got, and I’m glad it was so thoroughly rinsed. But it’s one of those so-bad-it’s-good things. In missing the mark so catastrophically, Pepsi have ironically gained a little bit of that counter-cultural edge they were flailing for in the first place. They’re tragically uncool, and I sort of like that.
Above all: Pepsi are weird. One of my favourite things on the internet is Pepsi’s bizarre brand document from 2008 – no one could figure out whether it was legit or a hoax or a sneaky attempt at viral marketing. The brand has certainly taken a postmodern trajectory since their iconic partnership with Michael Jackson, back when they were “The Choice of a Generation”. I wonder if this is what happens when branding overthinks itself.