In the last few weeks, it feels like there is something in the water fountains of some major advertising agencies causing them to put out tone-deaf campaigns that alienate their intended audiences.

In happier circumstances, they would no doubt have been thrilled with the explosion of press their campaigns received!

Nene Parsotam, Senior Art Director, Co-Founder of VINE Creatives and Co-founder of Stripes shares her views and analyses the recent Kendall Jenner-led Pepsi ad. She looks at what they did wrong, and how we can all learn from their major blunder.

Not so refreshing: How the Pepsi ad fell flat on its face
Nene Parsotam

No one can deny that diversity and inclusion are hot topics at the moment. While acknowledging the issue and of course selling their products, mega brands need to tread carefully to avoid looking like their sole aim is to simply capitalise on this topic and by doing so making it look exploitative. It’s always tricky for a legacy brand to make political statements which feel genuine and relevant.

Pepsi’s recent ad comes across as shallow, inauthentic and contrived for quite a few reasons, but for me, one of the main issues was the decision to use one of the least politically active social media influencers, showing that they chose this celebrity simply for her reach and popularity as opposed to her views, further adding to the feeling of dis-ingenuity which permeates the ad. The fact that it looked like this celebrity could use merely a cold, fizzy drink to “fix” the situation adds further insult to injury.

Even beyond looking like it was parodying civil rights movements, the ad had no underlying message which tied it back to the product itself which is one of its biggest failures. What’s the connection between Pepsi and a global political movement? A celebrity? When deconstructed like that, it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Adding diversity for the sake of diversity, or to tick a box will just paint a brand as hollow and disconnected, seeking only to ride a trend.

Not so refreshing: How the Pepsi ad fell flat on its face
Image credit: Pepsi

Much has been levelled at the in house creative team, as brands usually work with external creative or full service advertising agencies to avoid this very scenario, but they can only shoulder some of the blame. It will be interesting to know just how diverse the creative team or indeed the senior management team were. And of course, hear about the sign off process. Were individuals too afraid to challenge the creative or did they genuinely think this ad was a good idea? Regardless of that however, Pepsi had the brand credibility and resources to simply speak to and involve the communities they were seeking to represent.

They made the classic mistake of simply not consulting with the groups they intended to show they were supporting. Ads like this come about when teams make decisions in isolation and in a bubble.

The savaging on Twitter may have been a wakeup call for both Pepsi and the advertising industry in general. The takeaway from this, is that diversity and inclusion needs to start at grass roots, within the creative teams and senior leadership, be it in-house or within advertising agencies. Only then can it permeate the work and feel authentic. Because then it will be.

VINE Creatives is a branding, strategy and investment agency that works with the African Diaspora and business with an African focus, both here and on the continent.

 Stripes is an initiative that creates opportunities for ethnic diversity talent within the creative advertising industry by working with agencies to help BAME talent transition from middle to senior level through mentoring and support.

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