Pepsi’s Awful Ad isn’t an Aberration: It’s a Symptom of Commodified Dissent

On Tuesday this week, Pepsi released a shockingly offensive ad that featured Kendall Jenner parodying a #blacklivesmatter activist. The advert featured Jenner joining a protest that starkly resembles a Black Lives Matter protest. After working her way through a smiling, cheering, and apparently politically apathetic crowd, Jenner reaches a police barrier. In imagery intending to replicate Ieshia L. Evan’s iconic face-off with the police in Baton Rouge, Jenner hands one of the police officers a can of Pepsi. The officer takes the can, and the crowds erupt into cheer. In one kumbaya moment, police brutality and systemic racism is solved (by white womanhood, no less).

The ad has been correctly described by many commentators as “atrocious,” “controversial,” “tone-deaf,” and “awful.” It faced intense backlash and mockery on Twitter, and was slammed by Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. The protest to the video was so severe that it took only twenty four hours for Pepsi to take down the ad and issue a public apology. Kendall Jenner, too, swiftly deleted all tweets referencing the ad. The internet community correctly reached the consensus that the ad trivialized a powerful protest movement that fought against racist police violence, whitewashed and co-opted black and POC labor, and appropriated the struggles of oppressed minorities at a particularly politically vulnerable time in the United States.

The ad isn’t Kendall Jenner’s first foray into appropriation and offensive, tone-deaf portrayals of marginalized communities. Nor is it the first time Pepsi released such a shameful ad. But the fact that Pepsi and Jenner thought it fit to release an advertisement like this shouldn’t be attributed to the insensitivity or idiocy of Pepsi’s creative directors or Jenner alone. Pepsi’s actions are merely the logical behavior of an industry that aims to capitalize off of a newly invigorated political climate, where dissent has become commodified and extremely profitable.

Consider the slew of carefully coded Super Bowl Ads that were celebrated as being anti-Trump by the left, but whose creators refused to have the courage to even claim they had any political intent. Or the way Dove and Victoria’s Secret have appropriated the body positivity movement. Or Nike’s embrace of female athletes wearing the hijab.  Or Dior’s $710 “We Should All Be Feminists” t-shirt. Or Twitter’s “#staywoke” t-shirt. Or Gucci’s “queercore” line of capsule shoes, each costing over $1000 a pair. Or indeed the general history of advertising that has tried to take revolutionary protest, and make money off of it.

All of these ad and products do the same thing: they empty popular protest movements of their political content, and instead use them to achieve their own ends—to sell us stuff (often made under exploitative conditions). They present a world where protests are filled with beautiful people, are glamorous and easy and non-divisive, and have none of the difficult, ugly, violent tensions that burn alive in protest movements amongst us today. In Pepsi’s capitalist fever dream, the police just needed a Pepsi handed to them by a white woman in order to stop shooting twelve year old Black children.

The message in these commercials is clear: we should all get over our differences (and their deeply entrenched systemic roots and the unequal positions of the parties in conflict), hold hands, and buy whatever product we’re being sold. The key to happiness and peace isn’t any sort of change to the status quo, but is instead consumerism. These commercials take people’s life’s work and turn it into meaningless, content-less images designed to line the pockets of the very people financially backing oppressive policies in the first place. They make a mockery out of movements that have cost people their freedom and their lives.

These ads also shift our focus away from the politics behind the brands themselves. Pepsi wants to promote an image of itself as inclusive, while perpetuating human rights violations in India. Nike attempts to woo the left with a line of sportswear for hijabi women, while operating sweatshops throughout the Global South, and harassing and violently intimidating its employees. Dove strategically chooses to tell American women to love their bodies despite their size, while telling dark-skinned Indian women they need to be fairer. Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey parades around in a “#staywoke” t-shirt, while running a company that has a 3% Black/Latinx workforce. Dior profits off feminism while simultaneously making money off sexualizing a fourteen year old girl. Budweiser celebrates immigrants in its widely appreciated Super Bowl Ad, while being sued for stealing property from Native Americans.

These advertisements, then, don’t just devoid popular movements of politics. They shift the politics at play in these movements towards a capitalist, exploitative and consumerist model, using a leftist mask to sell us products born of human rights abuses and unjust economic exploitation.

Pepsi’s awful ad shouldn’t make us simply reject Pepsi. It should make us question the entire tradition of “#woke” advertising as an offensive one, one that aims to perpetuate a system of oppression while profiting off of protests against it.

Header image via.



Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and politics, intersectional feminism, criminal justice, human rights, freedom of the press, the law and feminism, and the politics of South Asia.

Meg is a law student in California. She's interested in law and gender, race and criminal justice, human rights, cats, and sports.

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