The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pepsi apologizes to Kendall Jenner for decision she made and got paid for

Kendall Jenner stars in a new Pepsi ad thats causing controversy online. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

Pepsi's public apology to Kendall Jenner for her role in the soda giant's ill-fated commercial has triggered even more backlash.

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company wrote Wednesday in a statement. “Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

In the nearly three-minute spot, Jenner strolls through a crowd of protesters, plucks a can of soda from a frosty tub and hands it to a stoic-faced police officer. The crowd cheers. The tension melts away.

Activists accused Pepsi of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement, which has, over the last three years, inspired demonstrations nationwide against police killings of unarmed black people. Protesters have encountered tear gas, rubber bullets and jail cells. Deray McKesson, one of the more prominent faces of the movement, joked online that perhaps a can of Pepsi could have saved him from getting arrested.

Pepsi's decision to apologize to Jenner didn’t sit well with activists either.

“It's incredible that @pepsi apologized to Kendall,” Mckesson wrote on Twitter. “She chose to be a part of that ad. Pepsi needs to apologize to the protesters.”

Brooke Duffy, a Cornell professor who focuses on media and gender, said Pepsi’s “putting Kendall Jenner in this situation” line relies on an old sexist notion that young women don’t actually know what they’re doing.

“She has an incredible amount of clout and brand power,” Duffy said in an interview to The Washington Post. “They’re giving her no agency when she clearly willingly participated.”

Robert Livingston, a public policy lecturer at Harvard University who studies race and gender, said in an interview that it’s hard to know how people will react to content — through a diverse staff is typically better equipped to catch blind spots. But ultimately, he said, public figures consent to the projects they take on.

“The apology to Jenner was misplaced, not just because it infantilizes her,” Kennedy said, “but because it doesn’t address the real source of the offense. The apology should have been directed toward the protesters and the movement itself, which their ad appears to trivialize.”

It is a standard practice for stars like Jenner to receive the script before shooting a movie, but not necessarily commercials, said Susan Akens, an entertainment law professor at the UCLA School of Law. Megawatt celebrities, however, often demand review rights before signing a contract, which protects them from unflattering edits.

“This is part of the negotiation dance with talent,” Akens said. “What level of creative control is along the line of the clout of the talent. All talent makes the decision of what they want to be in.”

She suggested Pepsi might have decided to apologize from a public relations standpoint. Jenner's team could have also demanded the words of remorse to maintain their relationship.

Jenner, 21, is one of the most famous women on social media, with more than 21 million Twitter followers. She grew up — literally — on her family’s reality television show, “Keeping Up with The Kardashians,” which has aired now for 13 seasons. (Jenner didn't respond to the Post's request for comment.)

Pepsi also has a history of working in collaboration with artists, rather than giving them commands. Back in 2012, when Beyoncé became the face of Pepsi — and reportedly netted $50 million from the campaign — the superstar suggested the company handed her some creative power.

“Pepsi embraces creativity and understands that artists evolve,” Beyoncé said at the time in a statement. “As a businesswoman, this allows me to work with a lifestyle brand with no compromise and without sacrificing my creativity.”