Pepsi ad exploits black activists’ struggles for profit

Zila Sanchez

By Zila Sanchez

Pepsi’s new commercial was supposedly the vision of perfect harmony. It would almost be enriching if it did not appropriate such a sensitive issue with a white girl leading the revolution with a soda can as her choice of weapon, and if it wasn’t completely out of touch with the real world.

It received harsh backlash immediately, as it should have. It was trending within hours but not for positive reasons. Everyone was talking about how insensitive it was.

At first, PepsiCo stood by their ad and released a statement regarding the backlash they received.

“This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey,” PepsiCo said.

“People from different walks of life”? It seems unlikely that the privileged men of power at the PepsiCo headquarters would know much about what “people from different walks of life” go through. That ad was more than a badly planned commercial. It was another way to commercialize and capitalize the suffering that people of color, specifically black people, endure.

In real protests, the crowd is usually not as calm and cheerful as depicted in the commercial. Activists and others marching in protests typically express raw emotions, rather than that silly over-produced rally shown in the ad. During Black Lives Matter protests around the country, black people voiced their pain and anger over the high amount of police brutality witness in the black community. In turn, they faced violence from the police. They were pushed around, beaten, tear-gassed, and threatened. None of that was shown in the Pepsi ad. It failed to capture the consequences that emotionally-charged protests have, especially if those protests are led by people of color. Even before

Black Lives Matter, black people faced violence and hatred during the civil rights marches. Protesting for unity is not anything new. What is new is a can of soda that magically brings people together.

It’s a shame that civil rights leaders did not think about handing out soda cans as a peace offering. Who knew it could be that simple?

“If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi,” tweeted Bernice King, daughter of the late Martin Luther King Jr.

After 24 hours, the ad was pulled from YouTube and the company released another statement:

“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. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

The fact that the company decided to apologize to Jenner as well was another slap in the face. Jenner was not a victim. She was aware of her role. The problem with Jenner’s role in the ad was that she was the face of change. Because she is known for her Kardashian family fame, everyone knows that she will never have to experience struggles that black activists do. Her role was inspired by Ieshia Evans, a black protestor who stood her ground outside the Baton Rouge Police Headquarters. Evans not only stood firm when heavily armored officers approached her, but she also displayed unbelievable grace while doing it. Meanwhile, in the commercial, not a single black woman was highlighted. The ad managed to erase the culture of its very inspiration.

Black women have been the backbone of liberation movements, such as the civil rights and the black arts movement. They organized the original Million Woman March in Philadelphia in 1997. Three black women started #BlackLivesMatter, which has changed the discourse on race forever. Black women have been too involved with civil rights matters to be erased in an advertisement about creating unity and understanding.

This commercial deserves to be ridiculed for years to come. It was so out of touch with reality that one would assume that an advertisement like that could never be made. No company – no matter how big or small – can exploit sensitive social issues with violent pasts like Black Lives Matter without being profoundly problematic. This Pepsi ad has changed the way many people perceive the company and their products. I would recommend Coca-Cola but they have had a history of controversial commercials, too. How about we stick to drinking water?

Twitter & Instagram: @SeriouslyZila