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April 7, 2017
The Lingering Aftertaste of the Pepsi Ad
The commercial has vanished — the issues it raised haven’t
Even as you read this, much of the chatter about Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner commercial has begun to fade. Everyone with a social media account weighed in. And almost universally, the world decided that caramel flavoring couldn’t mask the bad taste the spot left in everyone’s mouth.
Let’s put aside the content of the commercial itself. Rather than a refreshing burp, the very nature of the spot’s creation has opened a can of worms in the advertising and marketing world. We’re confronting a lot of change in the industry and quite a bit of it was encapsulated in this episode.
Could our industry’s “adults” have stopped this train wreck?
Yes, there was a fair amount of cheering from advertising’s elder statespeople when the wave of criticism cascaded down. Call it a cathartic schadenfreude. Veteran marketers and CDs who find themselves perceived as unwilling or unable to cope with an increasingly millennial-focused, content-driven, small idea-laden industry took glee in the fact that the “kids” (however old they really were) dropped a big turd on a big stage. They seemed validated at the thought that there’s a need for grown-ups and higher standards and the ability to use the word “no.”
We all secretly wish — and maybe someone out there has it — for that Jedi Mind Trick that convinces clients NOT to insist on watering down a good idea or championing a bad one. And plenty of experienced folks think they would’ve stopped this bad idea from getting produced. We’ll never know.
In-house agencies are capable of good work. But this didn’t help the cause.
Quickly, it was revealed the spot was created by PepsiCo's in-house content creation arm, Creators League Studio. So did we witness the ultimate in groupthink? Did anyone not speak up?
I’ve worked with several in-house teams, many of whom are refugees from the agency world. They’re talented and capable of producing great work like any outside shop. But it’s a tricky situation much of the time. The clients are on the floor below. The “we’re all in this together” vibe permeates the halls. And it’s easy to think your product is the best when you work in a corporate headquarters and it’s the only brand you’re working on. There’s not much falling on your sword for anything. Take a strong stand at an outside agency and it’s expected. Do it in-house and you’re a boatrocker in need of an attitude adjustment.
Perhaps it’s a smoother process to get something approved in-house. But without the tension and friction of a standard agency-client relationship, ideas don’t get pushed as far as they could go, or don’t get killed when they need to be. Maybe that’s what happened in this case. So the agency folks snickered at the in-house debacle.
Still, in-house teams will continue to grow at major brands. The need for quick quantity in marketing executions isn’t going away. But in-house creatives will have to fight the stigma of their situation, and fight for great work, with all the tact they can muster. They need support, not ridicule.
Commit to walking the talk, or stick to advertising the damn product.
I once worked at a Pepsi roster agency. Back then, Pepsi was a purpose-driven brand. The purpose was to sell more Pepsi to consumers and get more restaurants to “pour” it. Simple as that. They didn’t call it the “Cola Wars” for nothing.
Latching on to a message-du-jour — something they also tried with the ill-fated Pepsi Refresh Project — didn’t work here. Nobody wants to see their passion co-opted by a brand, and definitely not this crassly. Yet glomming onto a cause or a faux set of values seems to be something more and more brands think is required to be relevant these days. It isn’t.
Pepsi will be just fine.
It’s a testament to the power of a social media wave that this spot got so panned so quickly. Consumer indignation, whether righteous or not, can spank a brand in the ass. The argument of, “but it worked, people are talking about it” is not only false, it’s a piss-poor excuse for this piss-poor commercial. In this case, all publicity is not good publicity.
But Pepsi isn’t going to suffer. Their sales won’t be greatly affected one way or another. Same goes for the fates of the people who created this spot, and the executives who greenlighted it. The world moves — and moves on — too fast these days for something like this to cause long-term damage. I’ll bet Pepsi’s CMO is already planning his well-documented-on-Facebook Hamptons summer outings.
There but for the grace of Bill Bernbach’s ghost go we.
I have a confession to make: I’ve written some bad ads in my life. Real stinkers. And I’ve been in the room when a good idea goes all pear-shaped, destined to be mangled and produced badly.
It’s not just me. Every creative or agency you’ve ever admired has produced bad work. Nobody in advertising wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to do some lousy, condescending work that’ll be universally reviled by consumers and not helpful for my client.” But it happens. As an account planner friend of mine once eloquently (and with an lovely Australian accent) put it, “90% of everything is shit.” There are many reasons for that, and that percentage won’t change.
For a lot of people, it’s simply fun to pile on to a behemoth like Pepsi when they stumble. We see brands falter all the time with their messaging, so there’s nothing new here. There certainly are bigger, more pressing issues in the world and this is simply a distraction. But for people working in advertising and marketing, we all need to stay vigilant and do the best work possible. And whenever necessary, putting the brakes on a bad idea before it gets produced.
If we can’t do that, then entering the industry will stop being the choice of a new generation.

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Since 2002, Dan Goldgeier has been writing the most provocative advertising columns about advertising and marketing -- over 170 of them, covering every related topic you can think of. Now based in Seattle, Dan is a copywriter and ad school graduate who's worked at shops big and small. 

Visit his copywriting websitesee his LinkedIn profile or follow him on Twitter.

And please, buy his book for 99 cents.


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