If anyone has been taking to Twitter for a break from the stress of final essays like I have, the latest viral sensation would have been impossible to miss. Pepsi released an advertisement which has been the centre of much controversy. The ad is essentially set at a protest, occasionally showing a bit of background of the people involved in the march. The cause is ambiguous; signs read “peace,” “love,” and “join the conversation”. Some of the backlash Pepsi has faced is directed at the co-opting of activist images and movements — at a time of civic unrest when actual activists are advocating for equality as marginalized groups face further oppression — for corporate gain.
The commercial is insensitive and inappropriate in a number of ways, but the ad’s conclusion is possibly the most controversial aspect. Kendall Jenner — the ad’s protagonist — decides to join the protest despite being in the middle of a photoshoot when she sees the march! Whatever social injustice the protest is addressing is rectified when Jenner approaches the happy-go-lucky and excited frontline of the protest to hand a police officer a Pepsi. The officer looks at his squad and smiles and nods; peace has been restored. Of course, this makes a mockery of the experiences of actual protesters and advocates who have been arrested, assaulted, pepper sprayed, and otherwise. There are identity politics at work here; Kendall, as a thin, wealthy, white woman can apparently be comfortable with approaching police officers at a protest with a peace offering.
The backlash to this ad was abundant and rapid on Twitter. So rapid, in fact, that Pepsi issued an apology for “missing the mark” and pulled the ad less than 24 hours after it had been released. I know I post about this a lot but… this is an excellent example of the power of platforms! Twitter’s affordances allowed for the ad to go viral and the public to display their disapproval immediately and on a massive scale. I don’t want to be too utopian but I think this demonstrates how technology can be used to renegotiate power relationships.
While some of the criticism was simply words in response to Pepsi’s tweet, I believe part of the reason the video gained so much attention was the appropriation and remixing of Pepsi’s ad and historical images to critique the commercial. The images were shared as memes which carried political messages. The images are funny, evocative, and critical — I think they serve as a good example of ways in which ‘culture jamming’ continues to manifest itself online and result in corporate response.
Here are some examples of the tweets and images that went viral in response to the Pepsi ad: