“Pop” Culture and Controversy: Pepsi’s “Live for Now” Campaign Falls Flat
Updated: Mar 31, 2021
This was written for CAS 842: Professional Communication Ethics in the Michigan State University Strategic Communications MA program.
Brands that rely on celebrity endorsement may benefit from pop culture and personal popularity. However, there is always a risk of blowback and controversy. The latter was the case in 2017 when Pepsi created a YouTube advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner against a protest backdrop.
In the ad, the reality star approaches a phalanx of police and hands a Pepsi can to an officer. Jenner’s gesture prompts a stern-faced officer to smile. Protesters rejoice. Celebration ensues. The phrase “Live for Now” with the Pepsi logo wraps up the spot (Khawaja & Stroud, 2018, p. 1). Regardless of intent, the ad drew sharp criticism in contrast with Black Lives Matter protests—and many thought the ad did not display model behavior (Victor, 2017).
The purpose of this paper is to answer questions posed by the authors of a related case study: “Sweet Justice: Pepsi’s Controversial Use of Protest Iconography in Advertising.”
Shaking Up Ethics and Values
Khawaja and Stroud (2018) first ask if Pepsi engaged in unethical behavior in this ad. Reading the case study, one reasonably can conclude that the ad does not engage in prima facie ethical misconduct. The premise is timely, the celebrity—although polarizing—is part of the zeitgeist, and the product is otherwise apolitical. Normally, ad executives would green light this premise without reticence
By contrast, the ad definitely displays a “tone-deaf” approach that flies close to white privilege. A standard skeptic may look for negligible fault, but it is one thing to be guilty of bad judgement and another to fail at good taste.
PepsiCo (n.d.)., on the corporate website, lists mission statement aspirations that promise to: create joyful moments through delicious and nourishing products and unique brand experiences; drive game-changing innovation; create meaningful opportunities to work, gain new skills, build successful careers through a diverse and inclusive workplace; and deliver sustainable shareholder returns through superior corporate governance (PepsiCo, n.d.). The corporate vision includes the commitment to “do good” for the planet and for communities (PepsiCo, n.d., p. 2).
Considering these sentiments, the “Live for Now” ad parallels PepsiCo’s value statements and propositions. Lacking mens rea of the executives’ initial planning, one could conclude that this campaign incorporates the publicly published values of the company. Although some found the ad inappropriate, it was not unethical.
Intentions and Outcomes
Next, Khawaja and Stroud (2018) inquire: how much do the intentions of advertising companies matter in judging the appropriateness of their advertisements. PepsiCo’s intentions play a large role in this case study. Considering the aforementioned mission and values statements, it is surprising that PepsiCo executives did not have a better grasp on the nation’s social norms—a strategic starting point that could have afforded PepsiCo leadership the current definition of appropriate behaviors and social interactions as well as the penalties for deviation (McDonald & Crandall, 2015).
Juxtaposing Jenner (who is posing for a photo shoot) with protesters could come across as irresponsible or trivial. But when she pulls off her blond wig and joins “the people,” the ad modulates to a higher pitch. Intent at this point seems to convey a “woke” outlook; perhaps Jenner realizes the folly of her modeling assignment compared to what is happening in the streets. Payton (2017) describes the “Live for Now” ad as “everything that’s wrong with Millennials” (p. 1). But the suggestion of attitude and behavior change often is intrinsic to Millennial segment (Pinsker, 2017).
In the current socio-political climate, poor judgement and planning may open companies to controversy—leaving brands vulnerable (Kitterman, 2019). A disconnect between intention and implementation may imply bad judgement, but appropriateness is subjective.
One could suggest the country was still reeling from the impact and imagery of Black Lives Matter protests—and the “Live for Now” ad caught social shrapnel because emotions were raw. Protests are universal. Racism is cyclical. The only thing that changes are norms. A final note about outcomes: any project featuring a Kardashian often is either lauded or panned; rarely is there a middle ground when this reality family is concerned.
Rather than question the appropriateness of intention, one might question the creative license, not the subject matter. Phillips (2011) cites the “visual turn,” or sociological importance of images used by protesters, as a driver of analytical outcomes of empirical data and audience interpretation (p. 2).
Message content, layout, and design may articulate moral reproach and representations of status-quo assumptions; thus, one can draw association and nominal values from visual creative collateral (Phillips, 2011).
If imagery tells the story, then the visuals should be unique, powerful, and original.
One could argue that the “Live For Now” ad borrows upon similar imagery from Ieshia Evans —a protestor of the Alton Sterling death—and the famous “Flower Power” image depicting a Vietnam War protestor inserting flowers into a soldier’s rifle (Khawaja and Stroud, 2018; Rutledge, 2019).
Often, accusations of plagiarism, creative appropriation, or intellectual property theft can stain a company’s reputation. If PepsiCo’s intention was to create an homage to these famous images, then the intention aligns with the ad (but the ad should have featured these iconic images to imply a continuity).
If the intention was to portray the image of Jenner and the wall of police as an original PepsiCo creation, then the intention is inappropriate.
The next question concerns the appropriateness of PepsiCo’s response to the “Live for Now” backlash. The company released an official statement, in which leadership apologized for making light of a serious issue and for placing Jenner in an untenable situation (Khawaja & Stroud, 2018).
This sentiment demonstrates reasonable contrition, especially when preceded by the admission that PepsiCo “missed the mark” while trying to promote “unity, peace, and understanding” (Victor, 2017, p. 2; Khawaja & Stroud, 2018, p. 4). Eric Schiffer, chairman of reputation management consultants, states that the core of every brand is trust, and celebrity endorsers foster a sense of familiarity with the brand (as cited in Schlossberg, 2016).
But celebrity endorsements, during a crisis, carry unique risk and potential liability: how the public responds can create a long-term impact to consumer relations and to stakeholders (Cecconi, 2020). Jenner herself apologized personally on an episode of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians,” stating she felt “stupid” and would never purposely hurt someone (Entertainment Tonight, 2017. 0:20).
According to a cross-generational customer preference study by Oracle, eighty-eight percent of Millennials trust recommendations from friends and peers, value experiences over products, and respond to brands that reflect values in content (as cited in Balkhi, 2020). PepsiCo’s statement was quick—a response that fits within the Kardashian clan’s demographic—and espouses the experiences-over-products and value-backed mindset.
The ad may have missed the mark, but the apology hit the target audience. As for the general population, the reply may have been more triage than apology.
Creative Freedom and Limitations
The next question concerns creativity: should social issues limit an advertiser’s creative freedom? The quick answer is no. Taking risks is part of advertising, but companies must realize audiences are not homogenous—even at the peril of alienating some stakeholders (Fallon, 2014; Taylor, 2014). Pop icon Madonna—who experienced her own Pepsi commercial controversy in 1989—tweeted recently a recommendation that individuals should align themselves with creative, intelligent people who are not afraid to ask questions and take risks—because “artists are here to disturb the peace” (Madonna, 2020).
Perhaps this is a healthy way to view the artistic process. When society dictates creativity, they become social censors.
Rather than letting issues drive decisions, leadership should incorporate creative teams into the strategic decision-making process. Tempered by mission, vision, and risk-assessment, creative campaigns can navigate controversy with a think-tank approach that taps the expertise of a firm’s human capital.
Ethical Solutions to Protest Iconography
Finally, Khawaja and Stroud (2018) inquire if there is an ethical way to use protest iconography in a Pepsi ad? In 2020, it is not as simple as wanting to buy the world a Coke and maintain perfect harmony. Advertising to diversity may prove a noble aspiration, but anyone with a social media account becomes a critic. Hillary Clinton, during the 2016 election, came across as pandering when she told a DJ on New York’s Power 105.1 that she had “hot sauce in her bag” (based off Beyonce's “Formation”) (Lange, 2016, p. 1).
Audiences are smart, and they can spot a phony from a digital mile away.
Considering the demographics and segmentation for the “Live for Now” ad, PepsiCo executives could have leveraged Jenner’s star power in an environment more authentic to her world. Instead of a protest set, the ad could have found Jenner modeling still, but in a studio with a television within eye-line. Create the impression that the model is watching the news. Contrast social issues with the folly of modeling, but instead of having Jenner leave and join the protest, she could speak with the photographer or other models. Maybe create the impression there is a debate, and Jenner gives her loudest opponent a Pepsi.
This type of ad could still create a bridge between opposing viewpoints while introducing civility and political thought (while avoiding a carbonated controversy).
Another approach may have kept the reality theme and features a vérité approach featuring a series of ads that showed the behind-the-scenes meetings and shooting of an ad that still incorporated social themes, but not in a protest environment.
This format could play well to YouTube audiences and could have featured shorter, one- to two-minute clips culminating in the final ad. Creating buzz along the way, PepsiCo could have parsed the social justice concept in an authentic way conducive to traditional and to earned media.
This concept could be named “Live How?” rather than “Live for Now,” leaving the audience with a question that only they can answer according to their moral viewpoints.
In an era when celebrities, politicians, notables—anyone on social media—are one post away from being “cancelled,” protest iconography should be handled carefully but not eschewed. To avoid sticky situations, evergreen brands like PepsiCo must learn to “read the room” when it comes to complex, socio-political issues.
Still, a balanced and rational society should set their defaults to analytical, not to outrage.
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