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Communication Lessons from Pepsi-gate 2017

Pepsi did not know what they had coming to them. By now you have probably heard about the #PepsiLivesMatter commercial that was released this week (and then very quickly taken down, after the internet imploded in reaction to their tone deaf advertising skills). The commercial was in such poor taste that it managed to unite the entire internet against Pepsi. Even Martin Luther King's daughter, Bernice King, chimed in with a sarcastic tweet. 

As ads are supposed to do, Pepsi's ad created a strong emotional reaction among the masses. However in this case, love was not the emotion, instead it was blind rage. And for good reason. Despite the free advertising that Pepsi is now getting from the backlash, it is worth taking a moment to identify the communication lessons we can glean from this very poorly executed ad campaign. 

Lesson #1

Marketing is a powerful social tool and those who work in marketing should be activists. Not only to avoid insensitive commercials like this one, but also to provide relevant stock photos and ad campaigns that actually mean something for the consumer.

Lesson #2

Hire people from your target market to develop an ad campaign (and not just at the testing phase). Pepsi's target market is young people. The majority of young people in the United States are non-white. It is clear that in this case there were probably few to no young people (let alone young people of color) involved in developing this ad campaign.

Lesson #3

Be Authentic. Brands can work at the intersections of life and identity, still sell their product, and create change. Because that is real life. People prefer you to be controversial and authentic, rather than controversial and contrite. 

Lesson #4

Be Present. Building off of lessons two and three, as you develop a communications strategy be present in the reality of your consumers. Do not underestimate their intelligence and life experiences. Losing touch with the present and trivializing these experiences will lead to the type of backlash you see happening with Pepsi-gate 2017. I promise you. People do not like to be played for fools.

Lesson #5

Center Culture & Identity. (This lesson is straight out of the TST Playbook) One of the biggest criticisms of the Pepsi ad was how Kendall Jenner, a white woman, was the center figure of the ad. Her role echoed colonial "white savior" images. Precisely because of the changing demographics of the United States (where we are becoming a "majority minority" country) images of "The Great White Hope" no longer sells. Consumers want to see a diverse range of individuals centralized in storytelling because that is their reality. They want to see themselves, their family, their friends, and their neighbors reflected in an authentic, respectful, and loving way. This kind of representation doesn't just sell, it builds brand loyalty for generations to come. 

In summary, what did we learn from Pepsi-gate 2017? Do not underestimate the power of marketing. Hire people from you target market. Build campaigns that reflect people's reality. Do not underestimate your consumer. Tell the real story, not a reimagined one. Follow these steps and you will find a deeper and more honest relationship with your audience. 


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