One day after releasing a three-minute ad with original music, a multi-character storyline, and at least one helicopter shot—as well as another Kardashian everyone seems to know but me—Pepsi has pulled its Kendall Jenner commercial. Is this the fastest an American company has ever pulled an ad? No—that would be the disastrous Quaker Oats Company spot where Mikey refuses Life cereal until he dies of starvation, which ran for one afternoon in 1994. But this is pretty close. What is it about this commercial that so immediately enraged people? Pepsi gives us a hint in today’s statement:
Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.
Yeah, Kendall Jenner has suffered enough. But what’s this about making light of serious issues? The problem seems to be that this ad conspicuously elides serious issues of all kinds. Video after the jump.
Oh man. That is some post-industrial consumer culture, right there. There’s a lot going on in this commercial, including the somewhat baffling characters of the photographer who is sick of all her pictures and the cellist who…can’t stop sweating? It’s unclear. But we know K-Jen is doing some kind of photo shoot, presumably due to insatiable demand for more images of Kardashians, as a protest rages in the streets.
“Rages” is probably the wrong word. Everyone involved in this protest seems pretty happy, which might explain the messages on their placards. Some of them hold up peace symbols. Others wave signs that say “join the conversation,” a message that can only be described as corporate. So few people take to the streets demanding to hear from others.
“Join the conversation” is obviously calculated not to offend anyone. If you’re sitting in a room with a whiteboard in it, that strategy makes sense. Pepsi does not want to wade into Black Lives Matter, the Dakota Access Pipeline, the Trump presidency, or any of the other issues that have made public protest an element to our daily lives. For the purposes of this commercial, they want the form of protest without any of the content. But here lies the problem.
If you do not work for Pepsi, this ad takes an aspect of civic life that feels vital and important right now, empties it of meaning, and replaces it with “drink Pepsi.” It does what a culture dominated by vast conglomerates like PepsiCo does: commodify lived experience. But although protest is so hot right now to certain segments of society, other segments regard it as more of a life-or-death struggle for control of their futures. The discrepancy between these two perspectives becomes most evident in the commercial’s climactic moment, where Jenner gives a Pepsi to a cop in a way that seems to deliberately evoke this photograph:
That’s Iesha Evans, photographed in Baton Rouge last July by Jonathan Bachman of Reuters as she gives herself up for arrest during a protest against police brutality. The theory that Pepsi was deliberately trying to evoke this pictures is bolstered by the moment where our frustrated photographer takes a picture of Jenner handing a Pepsi to a cop, then smiles and accepts high fives, presumably for a job well done. But there are some notable differences between this photo and the Pepsi ad’s recreated tableau.
First of all, Jenner is a lot whiter than Evans. Also, the cop to whom Jenner hands that Pepsi is not dressed in riot gear, and there’s only one of him. He does not respond to the non-aggressive woman who approaches him by looking like he is going to erupt into violence at any second, which the cops pictured above do. Also, Evans got arrested. Maybe the extended version of the Pepsi ad shows Jenner getting pepper sprayed and subjected to a cavity search, but I guess we’ll never know.
Perhaps people reacted so strongly to this Pepsi version of fun, refreshing protest because it embodies reification: the degree to which existing systems resist change. Hundreds of thousands of people can take to the streets to protest Donald Trump, and he will go on being what he is. They can demonstrate against police brutality, and police will beat the hell out of them. Making civil disobedience the premise of a Pepsi ad reflects this truth too clearly. It implies that protest is another value we all agree on, another cool and important notion that has no real meaning in our daily lives, no power even relative to a brand of cola. Probably, that’s an accurate assessment. Nobody wants to hear it, though—especially not those of us who need a tool for systemic change more than we need to sell soda.