Things were easier for executives when all a major soda brand wanted to do was buy the world a Coke.
The 1971 “Hilltop” ad, in which a group of global singers came together to belt out a tune about how their soda of choice could unite nations, stands out even today for its massaging of self-interest (we’d like you to buy Coke) into an appealingly substanceless ideology (Coke can make people feel better and come together). Adjacent to a movement but not actually political, the ad set the template for a certain streak of TV advertising that’s currently back in vogue: Masticate and digest sentiments on the street and then sell them back to the people.
Pepsi, Coca-Cola’s longtime rival, is the latest company to try this strategy. The soda brand has run into controversy with its recently pulled two-and-a-half-minute ad in which model Kendall Jenner joins a protest and seems to defuse tensions with police officers by handing one a can of soda. It follows the Coke playbook, using a vaguely defined, outside-of-history sense of uplift (the protesters Jenner joins have laughably generic signs reading “Love” and “Join the Conversation”) that’s meant to feel urgent and contemporary.
And yet whatever its intentions, this ad is a glaring misstep. In any climate, an ad that seems to explicitly reference both black anti-police-violence protesters and Vietnam War protesters, all to sell soft drinks, would be misguided. That’s to say nothing of the fact that the recent incidents in which protesters have faced down police have been black people without famous names (like Baton Rouge protester Ieshia Evans) taking real risks, not white supermodels dispensing cola. This is a particularly tense and stressful moment during which many casual media consumers have become, to one degree or another, much more careful in parsing and understanding images. This ad’s fast-and-loose approach to protest imagery—going beyond the vague hippie costuming of the old Coke ad to turn real moments of high tension into an opportunity to celebrate commerce and fame—sounds a discordant note. (In an apology, Pepsi said: “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.”)
It’s not hard to understand, though, why it got made. A recent wave of high-profile ads have used easily-understood, vaguely political messaging to transmit the idea that to buy a given product won’t just make you happier—it’ll make you more virtuous. Take the overwrought Budweiser ad from this year’s Super Bowl, in which the story of German immigrant and brewery founder Adolphus Busch is used to communicate that to buy Bud is to be in conversation with America’s status as a nation of immigrants. This ponderous idealogical shift followed the previous year’s Super Bowl ad for Bud Light, in which Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen sought to unite Americans, already in a state of division months before the election, behind the “Bud Light Party.” To consume Bud Light or Bud proper (which rebranded itself as “America” during summer 2016) was to be a citizen engaged in the nation, even as all you’re doing is having a drink.
Budweiser and Bud Light’s political engagement, dopey as it was, ended at the concept of America being great, and the brand is identified as a quintessentially American beer. When Chrysler ran ads more about the city of Detroit’s travails than about its automobiles—well, at least they made their cars there. And Airbnb’s pro-diversity Super Bowl ad this year came from a company that facilitates global travel. Pepsi’s ad, more than anything, seemed baffling and random—more like the strange Super Bowl ad depicting the construction of a wall using 84 Lumber, or Coca-Cola’s attempt to curb cyber-bullying in a 2015 ad campaign.
It’s telling that even an ad as seemingly sui generis as the Pepsi disaster has multiple antecedents, ads that used contemporary ills as a way to get attention without the subtlety such a maneuver requires. Ads that use a landscape of division and unrest as the starting point for a sales pitch are now unremarkable. And a commercial that softened the imagery of protest by some percentage—keeping the general storyline of citizens hungry for social change but avoiding the specific image of Jenner handing a soda to a police officer—would have been cynical, but unremarkable.
The particulars of this ad make it bizarre, but they’re only a short walk away from what other brands are doing. It’s no longer enough to sell soda or beer or lumber. Companies now attempt to rise above media chatter by “starting conversations,” even as their natural risk aversion and the limited role they actually play in our lives mean those conversations are pointless and circumscribed. If Pepsi were actually to make a commercial that dealt frankly and in a clear-eyed way with police violence, it would still be weird! They are a soda company. But it’d at least be an attempt at the conversation they claim to want, rather than an inauthentic cash-in on many people’s unhappiness. Pepsi’s ad fails not solely for its insensitivity but its overextension of that familiar thing, faux-wokeness to sell a product, past the point where it can be reasonably ignored. Coke, in the 1970s, was upfront about their desire to cure malaise by selling soda; togetherness was a happy byproduct, not the goal. That message may have been dressed up in the style of its era’s protest movement, but at least it was honest.