Pepsi's new ad starring Kendall Jenner as a woman who becomes part of a protest movement has many scratching their heads in bewilderment, and for good reason. Allow me to set the stage.
Things start off well enough. A group of multicultural young folks are protesting in the street. An Asian American man playing bass; a woman in hijab reviewing photographs she's taken. As the protesters march by, both are drawn in, becoming part of the movement.
At the same time, Kendall Jenner is in the midst of a photo shoot in a nearby doorway, initially oblivious to the swelling crowd moving past her. She quickly glances at the crowd but then goes back to posing. It’s not until she receives a non-verbal invitation to join the march that she decides to stop working.
Apparently Kendall couldn’t have decided on her own that the protest was worthy of her participation. She needed someone to personally request her presence.
To prove she’s no longer supermodel Kendall, but down-with-the-cause Kendall, she smears her lipstick, peels off her blond wig and joins the movement. She picks up a Pepsi and almost immediately is “dapped” by a Black man standing nearby.
Well, sure. How would we know that Kendall has been accepted by the multicultural populace fighting for justice without this tacit approval from the Black community?
Jenner floats through the crowd without protest, walks straight up to a line of police officers and hands a can of Pepsi to one of them. At this moment, Kendall represents so many “progressive” white women who identify as “allies” ; late to the party but quick to move to the front to co-opt the labor of people of color and take all the credit, all without putting in the work. Imagine that- injustice solved with a sip of soda, all thanks to Kendall Jenner. Hooray!
How could Pepsi have let this go so spectacularly wrong? Who signed off on this ad? Did anyone think to run it by any people of color before it was approved? Better yet, were there any decision makers of color who viewed the ad before airing? No one could see how fraught the ad was from inception to distribution? No one was there to suggest that romanticizing protests was a bad idea when we’ve recently seen people put their lives on the line and end up arrested, bloodied, and even killed?
And no, I'm not referring to the Civil Rights era. I’m talking about, for example, last July. Pepsi used imagery of Kendall Jenner standing in front of a cop that is eerily reminiscent to a viral photograph of Leshia Evans, who stood her ground in front of police officers in Baton Rouge.
If folks on social media can make this comparison in less than 24 hours, surely advertising executives making five and six figure salaries can do the same. It’s literally what they get paid to do: predict how imagery from an advertisement will affect potential consumers of a product.
This is so ugly. Y'all are not about to glamorize protests. Y'all are not about to capitalize off of our struggle. pic.twitter.com/jaJ5a8Hf0U— nañi (@pettyblackgirI) April 4, 2017
Was there no focus group involved for this ad? If so, did no one say that the ad was offensive and why? If they did, was their critique dismissed as being overly-sensitive and ignorant?
"The 'Jump In' Pepsi Moments film takes a more progressive approach to truly reflect today's generation and what living for now looks like"
That was part of Pepsi's response to the uproar on social media, another misstep as we know that people of color, especially Black women, have been at the forefront at every single protest, unless they have been marginalized by their white counterparts.
Despite that, the hero in this ad is a white woman from an attention-hungry family. In light of this, why didn’t Kendall speak up? As one of the most visible faces on the planet, she has the platform to do just that and make a difference.
I don’t hold Kendal Jenner blameless in this situation. Some have labeled her as a young and unwitting participant, as if she just showed up to do her job and collect a check.
Let’s be clear. Kendall is 20 years old; she’s an adult capable of knowing right from wrong, reading contracts and making smart decisions. But even if she was under 18, her mother is Kris Jenner, matriarch of one of the most media-savvy families in this country. In addition to her omni-present mother, Kendall has at her disposal a team of publicists, agents and lawyers with whom she can consult.
The Jenner family is not hurting for cash. This is not a decision that was made because rent was due on the first. At any point, Kendall could have walked away from this horrid ad, even paying any contractually-imposed fine, if necessary.
No, Kendall is an adult who knew what she was doing and smiled at Black and brown suffering all the way to the bank.
Pepsi has announced that it is removing the ad and halting any further rollout. But to add insult to injury, Pepsi apologized to Kendall for "putting her in this position." Apologies to Kendall for putting her in "this" position. Wow.
The fact remains that this advertisement should have never been made. It’s offensive. Bernice King, daughter of civil rights icon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., registered her thoughts on the ad with this:
But Pepsi is not new to controversy or claims of racial insensitivity.
Five years ago, Pepsi was forced to pay $3.13 Million and make major policy changes to resolve the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Fining of Nationwide Hiring Discrimination Against African Americans. One wonders if those policy changes included bringing people of color into decision-making roles so that ads like this could be scrapped at their inception.
Therein lies the answer: hire more people of color and listen to them. Or continue to make preventable mistakes and get called on it.