Where Pepsi went wrong with its disastrous ad, according to ad execs

The protesters in Pepsi’s disaster of a commercial might not have had a message, but critics certainly do: Worst. Ad. Ever.

The now-scuttled spot inspired a monumental flood of derision from all corners of the web on Tuesday. Activists, celebrities and Americans of every political leaning united in roasting Kendall Jenner’s tone-deaf answer to centuries-old racial tensions.

Many saw the commercial as the epitome of Madison Avenue’s worsening habit of leeching onto serious social causes with empty corporate posturing. Don’t expect that to end with The Pepsi-Jenner Disaster.

“It’s a huge cultural shift,” said Max Lenderman, founder and CEO of the ad agency School, which specializes in social good-themed marketing. “There is this inherent power to it.”

It hasn’t always been like this. The idea of working social causes into advertising is still relatively new, Lenderman said, only starting to catch on within the last decade.

And with market research showing that young people now like to shop with brands that have a point of view and actually make change, brands aren’t going to stop their performative “woke”-ness any time soon.

“The key component is how you do it and if you miss, you miss hard.”

The all-consuming political hysteria accompanying Donald Trump’s presidency has tempted brands to more frequently wade into topical discussions. That was particularly evident during this year’s Super Bowl when it seemed like every other ad was a lofty messages about immigration, gender equality or other hot-button issues.

Saturday Night Live rightly skewered this trend:

Detractors often see this practice as exploitative and disingenuous. But ad execs insist that there are ways for corporations to tackle social causes without making everyone gag.

And somehow, amidst the hours of focus groups, sheaths of strategy notes and endless pitch decks that such multimillion-dollar ad campaigns entail, Pepsi managed to flub them all.

“To have a massive brand like that put out this particular piece in the context of what their audience has been seeing is astounding,” Lenderman said.

Lenderman’s Boulder, Colorado agency has built cause-driven projects for big brands like Nike and Microsoft.

He says the shop has four ironclad rules when it comes to campaigns with a social good bent: They must be well-intentioned, able to convince people of those intentions, aligned with the company’s own goals, and able to produce some demonstrable effect.

“You have to persuade millions of people that you come from a place of good rather than a place of capitalism, so to speak,” Lenderman said.

For Pepsi, the idea that a multinational corporation’s mission to spread an unhealthy soft drink corresponds with any conception of “woke”-ness is a tough sell. Not to mention Pepsi’s advertising has never had much of a reputation for social conscience.

“Pepsi has for years co-opted youth culture without ever really understanding it,” Lenderman said. “In this case they co-opted a particularly politically charged piece of culture without ever really answering the question of why.”

Agencies also spend hours anticipating how socially sensitive work might play across social media to avoid disaster situations such as Pepsi’s fiasco. It’s also carefully vetted by PR and legal departments for each of the parties involved.

For instance, Brent Choi, chief creative officer at J. Walter Thompson, said his agency had considered a campaign last fall that would have taken sides on the election. The agency’s top brass drew up various potential scenarios for how people might react to it and ultimately decided the cons outweighed the pros.

“It’s part of our business to know what the consumers are going to do and what the press is going to do,” Choi said. “It’s almost in some ways planning for the detractors more than the people supporting your messages.”

JWT, one of Madison Avenue’s biggest ad agencies, counts the official Black Lives Matter movement among its clients. Choi says the group has often pushed the agency’s initial pitches in a bolder direction a reverse of the usual dynamic in which agencies try to coax their skittish clients into riskier creative work.

“Black Lives Matter knew their tone really well,” Choi said. “They knew the intensity they wanted, the aggressiveness they wanted.”

Yet in an industry notoriously lacking in race and gender diversity, point of views rooted in personal experience aren’t always represented on creative teams.

Pepsi’s ad didn’t actually come from an agency it was produced by the soda empire’s in-house marketing shop, Creators League Studio.

The give-and-take process of dealing with an independent agency might have helped to avert the disaster, according to Choi.

Not everyone agrees. Carl Johnson, CEO and founder of ad agency Anomaly, which works with big brands like Budweiser and Diet Coke, says the ad was just a simple case of terrible judgment.

“This isn’t about in-house or external agencies’ creation. It’s about poor judgement rather than good judgement,” Johnson said in an email. “That can happen anywhere. But frankly, it’s a bit shocking since the error is so obvious.”

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