What a difference a day can make. When Pepsi launched its protest-themed advertising campaign starring Kendall Jenner on Tuesday morning, the soft drinks giant presumably knew that they would – to paraphrase one of the placards in said advert – be starting a “conversation”. Somewhat incredibly, however, the company seems not to have predicted the international backlash that their ad would unleash.
The short film has been widely condemned as a “tone-deaf”, “offensive” attempt to cash in on the international protest movement – particularly the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Singled out for particular scorn was a scene in which Jenner breaks away from a protesting crowd to offer a Pepsi to a police officer, echoing the famous moment when BLM protester Iesha Evans serenely faced down riot police in Baton Rouge last summer.
Many activists had something to say about Pepsi’s ad, but one of the most powerful responses came from Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter. Bernice King, a minister and CEO of The King Centre, posted a photo of her late father being manhandled by police at a civil rights protest. (In what may have been a coincidence, the Pepsi ad was released exactly 49 years to the day since King’s assassination.)
In response, Pepsi offered a personal apology to King.
“We at Pepsi believe in the legacy of Dr King & meant absolutely no disrespect to him & others who fight for justice,” the corporation wrote on Twitter.
They added that they had been “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologise.”
In an essay for the Huffington Post, King wrote that she saw Pepsi’s ad as “[contributing] to the notion that there is a fairy-tale, light way to ease conflicts that have existed in this nation for hundreds of years.”
Before his murder in 1968, King’s father popularised the notion of the “Beloved Community” – a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow beings. King said that this ideal could not be realised unless people started to think about the issues raised by Pepsi’s campaign.
“Some may say ‘It’s just a commercial’. I say that the ad and the responses to it reflect deep issues around race, privilege and how we build the Beloved Community post slavery and Jim Crow. We cannot ignore that we are currently grappling with gross injustice and inhumanity.”
Commending Pepsi for pulling the ad, King called on the world to “channel our energy into positive discourse and actions to address the emotions the ad evoked and the issues that were central in the ad”. She also suggested that Pepsi and other major corporations start thinking carefully about “social symbolism, race and responsibility, and presentations of privilege” in their advertising campaigns.
“The moment is ripe for personal, organisational and community transformation,” she wrote. “Let’s not miss this moment. Together, we can.”
Images: Rex Features