James Thompson
May 29, 2017

No risk, no reward

Pepsi’s latest horrible offering demonstrates just how easily a communications gamble can fall flat, but one of the lessons brands should learn is that it is always worth giving the dice another roll.

Messaging misfire: The soft drinks brand pulled its ad after widespread criticism for trivialising US racial tensions.
Messaging misfire: The soft drinks brand pulled its ad after widespread criticism for trivialising US racial tensions.

Well, I suppose it had been coming, the backlash against ‘purpose-based’ or ‘politicised’ advertising — but I don’t think I’d have guessed that Pepsi would be the brand taking the ordure of worldwide ridicule and fury. 

I’m sure that at some point, in the privacy of PepsiCo’s conference rooms, executives prided themselves on making a brave piece of work that would resonate with their consumers who time after time have shown themselves willing to buy brands which support causes or stand for values they themselves care about. It may even have seemed to make sense to have Kendall Jenner, of Kardashian descent and not yet known for depth of insight on social matters, pass a can of the fizzy sugary stuff to a riot cop in a scene staged to resemble a ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest before the slightly diffident slogan ‘Join the conversation’ graced the screen. Oh dear. 

Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it was horrible. Rather than making a powerful and empathetic statement the film was perceived to be gratuitously exploiting important and divisive issues, particularly in the highly charged atmosphere around race in the United States, and Pepsi made a humiliating climbdown, withdrawing the content and apologising to all and sundry. 

In the advertising world, you could almost taste the schadenfreude, as agency types were quick to point out that the film in question had been made by Pepsi’s own in-house studio (I suppose it is only paranoia that makes me wonder whether the advertising industry fanned the flames of the social media backlash). 

All of this is a huge pity. Purpose-based advertising has been part of a renaissance of quality marketing over recent years and efforts to discredit it seem cynical and spiteful. Certainly Pepsi got it wrong with a clumsy touch and perhaps, in the absence of any real actions previously that would suggest that the brand had a right to add its voice to this kind of conversation, it should have stayed its hand on content until it had actually done something to earn the right to comment. 

But it was no worse than clumsy. It would be depressing if the volume of backlash in this case deterred marketers from taking risks in future. I look at what happened here and think, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Pepsi took a risk. Although this time it failed I’m sure they’ve learned a load from it and I hope they take another one soon — and that it works very well for them. Taking one risk is brave — doing it again in the face of public shame will take real courage, and I hope that Pepsi show it.

James Thompson is global managing director of Diageo Reserve (Diageo’s luxury portfolio).



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