Pepsi did not just ‘miss the mark’, they missed a movement

In this Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, file photo, model Kendall Jenner has makeup applied backstage before the Michael Kors Spring 2017 collection is modeled during Fashion Week, in New York. Pepsi is not saying whether it will continue to run an ad, featuring Jenner, that is being widely criticized and mocked on social media for appearing to trivialize protests for social justice causes. (Richard Drew/AP)

By now, we all know that Pepsi’s latest advertisement is bad. What may be worse, however, is their response to the backlash. In a non-specific, non-apologetic way, Pepsi proves that they are just as tone deaf as this advertisement brought us to believe. While the corporation’s executives would like to think of this show of insensitivity as a small misstep, it is in fact a smack in the face to a legacy of struggle across our country.

Their intent was absolutely to make light of a serious issue, no matter what they’d like you to think. Using social justice as a means to sell your product is exactly that. If Pepsi says Black Lives Matter and their sales go up, that’s positive reinforcement. However, when Pepsi promotes their product as the saving grace for strengthening ties between communities and law enforcement we have a problem.

One of the most widespread criticisms of grassroots organizing and action is tone. As organizers, we are told we simply aren’t palatable. If we just didn’t say it that way, if we tried to have a conversation, if we just gave them a Pepsi, maybe they would care about someone’s baby being gunned down in a park. Pepsi did not elevate a social justice framework or message, they fixed it. They made it palatable, refreshing even. Then they gave us a pretty, non threatening white girl to deliver it.

And of course it’s Kendall Jenner. Why wouldn’t it be? A member of the family that thinks they invented corn rows, wigs, and nail art has even more to give the world; a lesson on effective organizing. Apparently when this clan isn’t wearing black folks like accessories they’re freeing them from the system. How generous.

A commercial showing our struggle through their lense is not just a commercial. We have to stop minimizing the impact of widespread misinformation. A black boy lays dying in the street, a brown woman is ripped away from her family, a racist, sexist, predator sleeps in our White House and our movement is still being criticized for not being nice enough? For not giving them more, when they have taken more than we ever thought we had to give?

No justice, no peace. No justice, no unity. No justice, no understanding. There is no common ground that we are purposely avoiding. The messaging here, that justice is as simple as reaching out to touch another human being is irresponsible.  When we have seen time and time again what happens to the most peaceful of protestors, it is disrespectful. Bernice King, daughter of the revolutionary Martin Luther King Jr. illustrated this point best of all, in a tweet that read “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” The attached photo is an image of King being pushed back by police officers while engaging in nonviolent direct action.

If Pepsi was truly trying to promote social equity, they would have promoted a message. There was no platform being advanced in this commercial. There were signs suggesting conversation; about what, viewers can’t be sure. And this is no doubt intentional. Of course it would be too much to ask for them to actually lend lip service to the causes they appropriate from.   

The fact is, though, that Pepsi was not trying to promote a global message of unity, peace, and understanding.. Pepsi was trying to promote Pepsi. That is their job. And a part of that job is knowing what sells. Right now, social justice seems to be the hot topic. The fact of the matter, however, is that protest is not sexy. It is not provocative and trendy. It is work. It is grief. It is attending the funeral of Mike Brown in cities across the nation. The protests I’ve been to aren’t filled with grinning supermodels and signs that ask others to “join the conversation”. We carry kinfolk made into hashtags on poster boards, on our chests, on our faces. We choke with grief and scream because it’s the only place we’re allowed to. We don’t approach police officers with soft drinks, or otherwise. We don’t want to be carried next.


Haddiyyah Ali is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at haddiyyah.ali@uconn.edu.