What Went Wrong In That Controversial Pepsi Ad

Disclaimer: Again, I’m writing another advertising critique, but I’m not a professional of the advertising industry. This is just my take as a passionate marketer. Enjoy! 🙂

Let’s get down to business. Here’s the ad for everyone’s reference:

There isn’t just one thing that went wrong with this ad, but rather, a number of small details that led to a failed communication of the message. So let me break it down for you:

This Pepsi ad revolves around the depiction of the world today. Let’s admit it; what they presented in each scene mirrors the current image of the world, like all kinds of people coming together, people rallying, police barriers, gender equality, racial equality, LGBT communities, fighting for rights, etc. The brand wanted to show people something [very] relevant so that they can relate to it, and if I’m not mistaken, they wanted to impart the same feeling of coming together to these audiences; to motivate them to join and take action for the shared optimistic vision of unity of humanity.

It’s not a groundbreaking concept, but it’s an impact-filled message nonetheless.

If executed well.

So to communicate this message, Pepsi decided that this is how the story should be told: Kendall Jenner, a young reality show star-slash-model, is busy having a photo shoot, looks outside, sees a crowd of people coming together, and then ditches her modeling gig to join in. And she shoves her wig to a black woman while she’s at it (one of the little details people noticed and shared all over social media).

The climax of their story is when Kendall gives a Pepsi to one of the police in the human barricade, with an “artsy touch” of silence when the can of Pepsi is given. And then all is well and the crowd parties. By the end of it all, the slogan says, “Live bolder.”

In my opinion, the story is very shallow. In Filipino terms, “ang babaw”.

And when you want to communicate an impact-filled message, you should tell a damn good story. Actually, scratch that. For any product you sell, it should always be a winning story.

In Pepsi’s case, the ad had a shallow story that failed to bring the winning concept all the way to the finish line.

But what made it such a shallow story?

First off, the most “out there” object is no other than the main character, Kendall Jenner.

They should not have gotten Kendall Jenner as the endorser. Or rather, they should not have gotten a celebrity as an endorser.

If you’re going to deal with this kind of topic―which is really sensitive if I may add―you don’t get a young reality show star-slash-model.

They should have gotten an anonymous person. Because then, the photo shoot would be out of the context and transformed into something else; which probably could have resulted to the better alternative.

Speaking of the photo shoot, that set up shouts out vanity so loudly, that it distracts the audience from what should really make the noise―the voice/image of the people coming together.

Pepsi was probably thinking that it’s better to show vanity as part of the story because―one―the message is about unity of different kinds of people, including a celebrity archetype, and―two―Kendall ditches the modeling gig anyway for the more important issue, and that makes the story better because of her choice.

Well, it did not work. I honestly felt “off” when she ditched her modeling gig. I felt no impact or excitement whatsoever as to what happens next.

When she joins in with the crowd and courageously hands a Pepsi to the police officer, there was still no impact. Because all I could see was an arrogant millennial reality star/model who had the guts to go up there only because she could get anything she wanted. Again, because of that prima donna image of her that stuck in my mind because the first time we see her is in a modeling gig. I’m not singling out Kendall Jenner on this. Had it been any other celebrity, I would have felt the same. Maybe Pepsi shouldn’t have had a photo shoot scene.

But the very important detail that I first spotted as what went wrong with the ad is this:

Ever heard of art execution styles in advertising? Thankfully in my college days as a marketing major, I chose to be in the class of the “goddess of marketing” in my university. And this topic was no joke.

I will not expound more on these art execution styles, but I will mention one to make you understand how much of an impact it causes.

With Pepsi’s message of coming together, the emotion that they were trying convey to the audience was to make them bandwagon or join in with the tribe. So in other words, their concept was tribal.

But mind you, there was nothing tribal about the ad.

Well, probably the only tribal thing in the ad was the projection of people rallying in the streets and uniting. That’s it. Which makes it look like a forced and out-of-place sight. In Filipino terms, “mukha siyang pilit”, just to communicate their message.

The background song they used was “Lions”, by Skip Marley, the grandson of legendary Bob Marley. Whether they used that song because of that detail or because they really thought it was a good song, I have to say that it does not fit with the concept and what the brand wants to communicate.

I have nothing against Skip Marley. But people need to be reminded that music, even when it’s just in the “background”, MEANS EVERYTHING TO EMOTIONAL IMPACT.

You’re supposed to stimulate your audience’s ears, not just their eyes.

Pepsi thought “Lions” was a good choice because of the lyrics. I agree, the lyrics are perfect for the ad’s message. But the people who came up with this ad have got to understand that lyrics are not as influential as rhythm. ESPECIALLY IN THE MILLENNIAL GENERATION.

HELLO, how else can you explain their clubbing culture of the rise of EDM (Electronic Dance Music), listening to nothing but electronic beats and all those “tugs tugs“? There’s probably only about 5% lyrics in each song the DJs play because all the party people care about are the beat drops.

So that leads us to this detail:

If you were to ask me, they should have gotten a song or a score that has bass drums in there. Just a single beat of the drum will make the audience feel connected to the ad and to the brand because if no one has ever noticed yet, the drum beats imitate what you imagine is your heartbeat and the motion of marching your feet. Your heartbeat and your feet connect to it and you are often unconscious of it. THAT’S MANIPULATING EMOTIONS THROUGH MUSIC.

The reason why drum beats are perfect for a tribal feeling is because of this connection to your heartbeat and your feet, that’s why it makes you want to stand up and join into something. Actually, drum beats FORCES you to join in.

I know this because obviously, as someone who has 110% team spirit, I have watched countless sports games of my university. And when we cheer, all I need are those first beats and I’m off of my seat, standing up and jumping. I am not exaggerating.

Why do you think the pep/cheer squad’s main instrument are the drums? It’s because cheering is tribal, and the squad wants everyone to cheer along with everybody else.

To make you have a stronger grasp of this concept, here are 2 examples to convince you of the impact when scenes and pictures are perfectly combined with the right music:

*You can put on your earphones to hear the music clearly

The Circle of Life scene of The Lion King:

The first yell automatically tells you that it’s tribal. Also notice that there are herds and flocks of animals coming together and the song is heavy on the use of drums; bass drums especially. The music is complemented with images of groups. There’s not just one zebra, or one elephant, or one giraffe.

You can even try playing this song while playing the Pepsi ad on mute. See how the bass drums could have helped.

The second example is the Mhysa scene from Game of Thrones:

Backstory: Daenerys has just freed hundreds (or even thousands) of slaves, but she is afraid they will not see her as a leader. If you listen to the background music, you can predict where the story goes. (You can skip to the 3:30 mark)

The people behind these productions know what’s up. The people behind Pepsi’s ad do not. So advertising agencies, you know where to find me. 😉 HAHA KIDDING!

This just goes to show that advertisers should be very articulate in finding the right formula in heightening the senses of their audiences. Some details should not be too extravagant and loud (like the photo shoot scene), and some details should not be ignored (like downplaying the impact music plays on emotions). Audiences do not only have eyes for senses, people.

But after all that has been said of this “controversial” Pepsi ad,

bad publicity is still publicity.

The people behind this Pepsi ad probably knew this. They took the risk because they were going to make waves anyway. And I commend them for that.

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