Pepsi Makes (Unintentional) Waves
In April 2017, a Pepsi commercial starring Kendall Jenner got lots of people on the internet talking, but for all the wrong reasons. In the ad, Jenner poses for a modeling photo shoot as a throng of protesters passes by. It’s unclear exactly what they are protesting, but Jenner is intrigued nonetheless.
Instead of angry chants and calls for change, these protesters smile, laugh, dance, and fist-bump one another as Skip Marley croons, “We are the movement/This generation/You better know who we are,” in the background. Rather than wry slogans aimed at injustice, the marchers’ Pepsi-blue signs carry large peace symbols and calls for unity. Jenner, unable to resist the crowd’s joie de vivre, rips off her blonde wig, wipes away her lipstick, and joins the movement.
The silliness of the innocuous protest gets downright ridiculous in the ad’s final moments when the protesters reach a line of unsmiling cops. The crowd stops. Jenner grabs a Pepsi out of a cooler and walks across the divide, handing the soda to one of the officers. With a loud pop and fizz, he opens it and takes a sip as the crowd goes wild. The cop smiles to his partner. Allowed to continue their march, the words, “Live Bolder. Live Louder. Live for Now,” dance across the screen as the protesters walk toward the camera.
After the ad premiered, people on Twitter were swift to point out that it trivialized complex relations between law enforcement and communities of color, especially following a number of protests around the country surrounding police shootings in these communities. Many people juxtaposed images from the ad next to actual photos of clashes with the police. Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, tweeted a photo of her father being pushed by a white cop and wrote, “If only Daddy had would have known about the power of Pepsi.”
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) April 5, 2017
It was a prime example of a celebrity endorsement backfiring horribly. The ad created a public relations nightmare for Pepsi and for Jenner, who bore the brunt of the blame for her participation. Pepsi eventually pulled the ad and apologized. Jenner later addressed the backlash on Keeping Up With the Kardashians, saying, “I would never purposely hurt someone ever. And I would, obviously, if I knew this was gonna be the outcome, like, I would have never done something like this.”
Levels of Influence
As people who live their entire lives in the public eye, celebrities are highly sought after by brands to promote their products and services. Celebrities are so trusted by the general public that it can feel especially egregious when they make such a large miscalculation as the Pepsi ad.
It used to be that you had to be a television or a film star to be asked to promote a brand. But in today’s economy, anyone who has even a moderate social media following can be what’s known as an “influencer.” Influencers are people that brands target to help them sell their image. This has given rise to a new kind of marketing called “influencer marketing.” Celebrities are the highest form of influencer, but YouTube stars, social media gurus, and others can all be influencers, too.
There are different levels of influencer, according to Stacy Jones, CEO of Hollywood Branded, an entertainment marketing company based in Los Angeles.
“A very base level is your micro influencer,” she says. “These are people that have thousands to tens of thousands [of followers].” While considered low for an influencer, Jones says micro influencers should not be ignored by brands. “They actually have the highest level of engagement of any type of influencer, including celebrity.”
The next level is the macro influencer, with tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of followers. “They’re a little bit more keyed in; they’re producing content [and] they’re used to doing that,” says Jones. “[Macro influencers] get more brand partnerships usually just because they’ve been doing it longer and brands are looking at their audience rates.”
Then come the hyper (or mega) influencers, whose follower counts are in the high hundreds of thousands; after them, you get the celebrity influencer. “A celebrity social influencer is going to have a million plus followers, they’re going to be just absolute pros on working with different partnerships. They’re the ones that go out to a mall and they get rushed.”
Then, on top of all of that and on the highest tier, are true celebrities. “If you’re thinking about pricing, even though a celebrity social influencer has the biggest audiences … the true celebrity commands the highest pricing,” says Jones. “They may have far fewer followers in reality, but … the fact they’re onscreen somewhere and have that talent and they’re known for that, or they’re an athlete or musician, that brings a whole new level to brand partnerships.”
Other Endorsements Gone Wrong
But celebrities are people, just like everyone else. So what happens when those endorsements don’t go as planned?
“As long as the brand partnership is still authentic and still organic, I think the brand wins,” says Jones. Things go wrong when the celebrity endorser is only paying lip service to brand rather than enthusiastically using the product in his or her life.
In 2013, Blackberry announced the singer Alicia Keys as ‘creative director’ in line with the launch of a new operating system. A few days after the announcement, Keys sent out a tweet that indicated it was from her iPhone (Keys later claimed her account had been hacked). Still, the partnership ended after only one year. “She’s been made the creative director of the brand, so that’s kind of awkward and painful, and doesn’t go over so well,” says Jones.
The same sort of thing happened with Ellen Degeneres at the 2014 Oscars. “She had this massive partnership with Samsung during the Oscars,” says Jones. “They were all over the place. Everyone knows the selfie that sank Twitter. But backstage, she tweeted out from her iPhone. Those little things get noticed really, really quickly, and it’s really easy to catch something.”
Then there’s the awkwardness for brands that come from a star’s personal or professional life tarnishing a brand’s image. Jenner’s ad was definitely not the first time Pepsi made a serious misstep with a celebrity ad. In 1989, Madonna landed a one-year contract as the celebrity spokesperson for the brand. On March 2, a two-minute family-friendly ad premiered wherein the singer travels back to her eighth birthday. But the next day, on March 3, Madonna’s official video for “Like a Prayer” debuted. The video contains a violence, burning crosses, and stigmata. After an outcry from religious groups, Pepsi canceled their ad.
In 2008, Christian Dior dropped Sharon Stone from its Chinese advertisements after she made insensitive comments about an earthquake in which 68,000 lives were lost—she called it “bad karma.” Stone was referencing political unrest in Tibet, which she says treated her “good friend” the Dalai Lamai unfairly. In reaction, Dior pulled Stone’s image from all Chinese markets, its fastest growing markets at the time.
In perhaps one of the funniest celebrity endorsements gone wrong, Helena Bonham Carter was chosen as the face for Yardley Cosmetics, one of the oldest cosmetic firms in the world. “I don’t know why Yardley chose me, I don’t wear much makeup,” Carter allegedly said.
The Downsides of Digital Media
Jones believes that the immediacy of digital media has damaged the way marketers and brands can partner together. “We’re moving in such a fast world now, everything needs to happen so quickly,” she says.
Especially in television and film, the amount of time that passes between when an ad is shot and when it comes out can make everything feel interminable. “If you work with a TV show, we’re not going to see that brand onscreen for sometimes up to three to six months. We work with a feature film, it’s going to be twelve to eighteen months before that comes out. Sometimes it even takes years if there’s a lot of digital effects.” But marketing teams often have enormous pressure to report back results from advertisements much more quickly.
The other way digital media has damaged traditional marketing is how reactive everything is. “It used to be a lot easier for celebrities and for brands to not be so under the microscope,” says Jones. “[Now] every single little comment, every poke, everything is not only able to be seen by everyone right away, it’s able to be commented and shared. And we all know that people like gossiping and like being more negative than positive.”
That pressure is amplified tenfold when a person with millions of followers makes one tiny misstep.
“There’s a lot of instances where a celebrity or their ad agency has created a campaign, and they certainly didn’t have ill intent for something to show up and look bad … but it’s just what the perception is, and then everyone runs with that so quickly.”