Case Study: Kendall Jenner & Pepsi
PepsiCo faced criticism in April 2017 with a short-film commercial starring then 21-year-old Kendall Jenner, a white model and reality TV star featured on “Keeping Up with the Kardashians.” The nearly 3-minute commercial was titled “Live for Now” and featured the song "Lions" by Skip Marley. The commercial aired on April 4, 2017, the 49th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Pepsi notes that consumers enjoy its products “more than one billion times a day in more than 200 countries and territories around the world,” according to pepsico.com. Pepsi points outs that “supporting diversity and engagement is not only the right thing to do, it is the right thing to do for our business.” The corporation also notes that it “embraces the full spectrum of humanity” by “building a more diverse, more inclusive workplace, and promoting what we call courageous engagement in our company and the communities we serve.”
The controversial commercial first depicts Jenner in a blonde wig, silver dress, and dark lipstick posing for photos while smiling people from diverse racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds peacefully protest with signs reading “Join the Conversation” and “Love.” After a young man nods for Jenner to join in, she rips off her wig, wipes off her dark lipstick, and makes way through the crowd, now clad in a blue-jean outfit. In a pivotal moment, a smiling Jenner grabs a can of Pepsi and hands it to a police officer lined up in front of the protesters. The crowd cheers and the police officer smiles. The screen reads: "Live bolder. Live louder. Live for now.”
Many social media users accused Pepsi of being tone-deaf and trivializing the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement for financial gain. The Rev Dr. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., tweeted, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Civil rights activist and podcaster DeRay Mckesson, tweeted, “If I had carried Pepsi I guess I never would've gotten arrested. Who knew?”
BLM was founded in July 2013 after George Zimmerman, a white-Latino neighborhood watch captain, was found not guilty of fatally shooting Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black male, in Sanford, Florida, in February 2012. Since then, BLM has grown to 16 chapters, including 14 in the United States and the rest in Canada and the United Kingdom, according to blacklivesmatter.com.
The commercial debuted roughly nine months after over 100 BLM protests erupted after the July 2017 deaths of two Black men: Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5 and Philando Castlle in St. Anthony, Minnesota, a day later. Police shot and killed both men.
Many people compared the image of Jenner handing the police officer a Pepsi to the real image of Ieshia Evans, a Black woman who stood silently in front of police during a protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 9. Police later arrested her.
The clip resurfaced in summer 2020 after protests erupted nationwide after the death of another Black man in Minnesota, George Floyd, who died May 25 after a police officer held his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes.
The commercial was a “blatant example of white privilege,” senior style editor Kelsey Stiegman wrote in Seventeen magazine June 2020. “Kendall, a white, millionaire supermodel, may be able to safely engage with a police officer, but for a Black person, this harmless act could be a death sentence.”
Course of Action
A day after the commercial was released, Pepsi pulled the ad and issued the following statement:
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position."
Five months later, Indra Nooyi, who was PepsiCo’s CEO at the time, told Fortune that when she saw that people were upset, she pulled the ad because she didn’t want to offend.
"This has pained me a lot because this company is known for diversity, and the fact that everybody who produced the commercial and approved the commercial did not link it to Black Lives Matter made me scratch my head," Nooyi told Fortune. "I had not seen that scene. And I take everything personally."
Jenner never publicly responded to the backlash. Instead, she spoke out about the matter six months later in the October 2017 season 14 premiere of “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Jenner said, “I would never purposely hurt someone ever. And I would, obviously, if I knew this was gonna be the outcome, like, I would have never done something like this. But you don’t know when you’re in the moment. I just felt so f—ing stupid.”
According to BrandWatch, PepsiCo’s social media sentiment was 53.3 percent negative on the day the commercial appeared and 58.6 percent negative the next day. Additionally, MarketWatch reported that in 2016, PepsiCo’s brand value dropped by 4 percent. Researchers say the ad could have cost between $2 million and $5 million.
Moral of the Story
PepsiCo’s in-house team created the commercial, which suggests that the team needed more diverse perspectives. Hearing different sides could have been achieved by seeking input from or hiring an outside firm to develop the commercial. Others have suggested that the beverage-maker needed more planning and research with its consumers, or needed to get an external perspective, particularly from protesters and activist groups. In summary, sometimes trying to save money on the front end is not worth the cost to an organization’s reputation on the back end.
Organizations must choose the right spokespersons who have authenticity and integrity. They also must seek outside opinions.
- How does this case connect back to what you have learned about the principle of requisite variety?
- Other than issuing an apology, what other course of action could PepsiCo have taken?
- How well did Pepsi live up to its diversity and engagement statement?
About the company. (n.d.). PepsiCo, Inc. Official Website. https://www.pepsico.com/about/about-the-company
CBS This Morning. (2016, July 15). Woman in iconic Baton Rouge standoff photo breaks silence [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LFC6l0DjDF0
Cady Lang. (2017, October 2). Kendall Jenner cried while addressing Pepsi ad backlash. Time. https://time.com/4965293/kendall-jenner-cries-addresses-pepsi-ad-backlash/
Carlos. (2017, April 5). Kendall Jenner for Pepsi Commercial [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j9x15lR9VIg
Diversity and engagement. (n.d.). PepsiCo, Inc. Official Website. https://www.pepsico.com/about/diversity-and-engagement
Hobbs, T. (2019, July 26). Pepsi’s ad failure shows the importance of diversity and market research. Marketing Week. https://www.marketingweek.com/pepsi-scandal-prove-lack-diversity-house-work-flawed/?nocache=true&login_errors%5B0%5D=empty_username&login_errors%5B1%5D=empty_password&_lsnonce=e170cca5a5&rememberme=1
Joyce, G. (2017, April 7). Data on the extent of the backlash to the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. Brandwatch. https://www.brandwatch.com/blog/react-kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad/#:~:text=Within%20the%20most%20common%20reactions,social%20movements%20for%20commercial%20gain
Pepsi statement re: Pepsi moments content. (2017, April 7). PepsiCo, Inc. Official Website. https://www.pepsico.com/news/press-release/pepsi-statement-re--pepsi-moments-content04052017
Victor, D. (2017, April 5). Pepsi pulls ad accused of trivializing Black Lives Matter. The New York Times - Breaking News, World News & Multimedia. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/05/business/kendall-jenner-pepsi-ad.html
Wright, I. (2017, April 10). 3 lessons brands should learn from Pepsi's Kendall Jenner ad disaster. PRNEWS. https://www.prnewsonline.com/pepsi-ad-kendall
Pepsi statement re: Pepsi moments content. (2017, April 5). PepsiCo, Inc. Official Website. https://www.pepsico.com/news/press-release/pepsi-statement-re--pepsi-moments-content04052017
Stiegman, K. (2020, June 1). Fans slam Kendall Jenner for not addressing police brutality after clips from Pepsi commercial resurface. Seventeen. https://www.seventeen.com/celebrity/a32729598/fans-slam-kendall-jenner-for-not-addressing-police-brutality-after-pepsi-commercial-clips-resurface/
Taylor, K. (2017, September 21). Pepsi CEO reveals her surprising response to controversial Kendall Jenner ad. Business Insider. https://www.businessinsider.com/pepsi-ceo-defends-kendall-jenner-ad-2017-9Next Page: Lesson 1 Assessment