This story has been updated to reflect Pepsi pulling its new ad.
A new Pepsi ad campaign invoking a Black Lives Matter protest drew immediate backlash on social media for appropriating a movement highlighting the killings of black Americans by police.
In the 2½ minute ad, celebrity model Kendall Jenner notices a passing rainbow coalition of marchers while she’s in the midst of a modeling shoot. She tosses her blond wig, wipes away her lipstick, and struts purposefully into the crowd.
The now-brunette Jenner makes a beeline toward a row of uniformed police, wading through a diverse group of beaming protesters flashing peace signs and flirtatious glances. She passes an ice bucket, reaches in to grab a can of Pepsi.
A photographer wearing a hijab captures the denim-clad Jenner handing the Pepsi to one of the stoic police officers. Click. The world stops for a second. The officer sips. The crowd erupts in cheers and hugs — as if institutional racism had been magically erased by her Pepsi peace offering.
DeRay Mckesson, a Black Lives Matter activist, called the ad “trash” on Twitter. “If I had carried Pepsi I guess I never would have been arrested. Who knew?” he wrote.
Other critics called it a tone-deaf ad strategy and questioned the diversity of the executives involved. Pepsi's chief executive, Indra Nooyi, is an Indian woman.
“Corporations like Pepsi should make political statements. But their statements shouldn't distort political realities to generate revenue,” Khaled Beydoun, a law professor and scholar of critical race theory at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, wrote on Twitter.
Jenner’s role in the commercial echoes the iconic photograph of Ieshia Evans, the black woman in a flowing sundress who stood facing riot police in Baton Rouge while protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling. Except Jenner is white. And wealthy. Daughter of one of the most superficial families in Hollywood who has not, on reality television or social media anyway, put her life on the line to protest any of the issues being highlighted by Black Lives Matter.
The Internet erupted with sarcasm, proposing an alternate ad with Jenner replacing all of Flint’s water with Pepsi. The Michigan city’s contaminated water supply crisis has led to class-action lawsuits and criminal charges after health catastrophes came to light.
Someone else suggested an ad in which Jenner’s more famous sister, Kim Kardashian, parachutes into Syria and uses Pepsi to wash the faces of children targeted by chemical weapons. Scores of people died there this week from a chemical attack.
It’s unclear what message Pepsi’s ad was trying to convey. If it was solidarity, critics say it backfired. They say there are ways to embrace diversity in commercials and convey progressive messages without offending the very people companies are trying to attract.
The Super Bowl this year featured many such ads. Take, well, Coke. It reprised a 2014 ad showcasing a diverse cast singing “America the Beautiful” in multiple languages. It was edgy and yes, offended some for featuring the patriotic anthem in Spanish, Hindi and Hebrew among other languages in addition to English. But it was not tone deaf.
The new Pepsi commercial put off so many people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds that they tweeted that the ad made them want to drink Coke. Others joked that perhaps it was actually a Coke marketing ploy.
But no. Pepsi owned it. At least initially. The soft drink giant released a statement defending the spot, calling it a “global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony.”
“We think that’s an important message to convey.”
Pepsi may have indeed helped people of diverse backgrounds forge common ground. Those on the political right panned the ad too — for promoting leftist protest movements.
“Watching p.c. corporatism backfire is schadenfreude-licious,” tweeted conservative commentator Michelle Malkin.
Less than 24 hours later, Pepsi pulled the ad.
"Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize," the company said in a statement Wednesday. "We did not intent to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout."
Pepsi also apologized for "putting Kendall Jenner in this position." Jenner has deleted her previous tweets promoting the commercial.