When Pepsi released a protest-based ad in April it received harsh criticism and damaged the brand's reputation. We can learn a lot from this situation about the importance of understanding our audience, and why we should be cautious about trying to capitalise on social movements.
Model saves the world with a soft drink
Pepsi's ad showed a familiar scene – angry protesters hitting the streets and butting up against an armed police presence. It added a few details – most notably, putting model Kendall Jenner in the middle of the action, prominently holding a can of Pepsi.
Pepsi tried to capitalise on the social unrest around police violence and the swell of support behind the Black Lives Matter movement, but in a way that put a feel-good spin on the whole thing, ultimately showing that societal problems can be won over by sharing a drink.
Public reaction to the ad was overwhelmingly negative, with many taking to social media to complain or make fun. Even Bernice King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s daughter, had this to say:
— Be A King (@BerniceKing) April 5, 2017
The public reaction was so negative that Pepsi had to quickly pull the ad and make this statement apologising for the blunder:
"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."
What can we take away from Pepsi's mistake?
There are a few lessons that marketers can learn from the Pepsi-Jenner fiasco, but the main one is to read the room. Just because something is topical, doesn't mean it's a good topic to use for a soft drink commercial. As Time Magazine points out, 'starting conversations' with advertisements has become a bit of a trend. But the gap between protesting police violence and soft drinks – or social unrest and Kendall Jenner – is too big to bridge convincingly.
Some topics, like the Black Lives Matter movement, are too important to be used for commercial gain.
Some things just don't fit with your brand. Topics like the Black Lives Matter movement are too important to the audience to be used for commercial gain. Instead of raising your brand up by attaching it to the issue, it seems like you're dragging the issue down.
The need for testing
One of the big mistakes Pepsi made was jumping into the full-blown ad campaign without testing the market first, writes author and marketer Deep Patel for Forbes. This is what we're talking about when we say read the room. Before launching the ad, Pepsi would have been better off testing it, along with some alternatives, on their target audience. That way they'd know something wasn't right before they were committed to the full financial cost and public embarrassment that they wound up with.
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