What Pepsi and Nivea fail to tell us about global brands
This week was a great week for columnists and think piece writers across the globe as not one but two global brands committed huge marketing boo-boos with equally short-sighted, tone-deaf, offensive ads. Being perhaps the bigger brand, and having used a Jenner/Kardashian in their whopping two-and-a-half-minute TV spot, Pepsi caused far more furore following the release of their commercial and within 24-hours had to make a lukewarm apology on social media pulling the ad off. Elsewhere, Nivea also pulled the plug on their atrocity of a print ad.
Initially Pepsi stood by their ad with the statement: “This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an import message to convey.”
They should have said instead, “This is a global ad made by a lazy, tone-deaf team of creatives that reflects only the youthful people with model looks coming together in bland faux protest saying sweet nothings about nothing at all which ended in people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of outrage on social media.”
If you missed this ad in all its glory in its 24 hours of infamy, a quick walk though: A bland, colour-coordinated, picture perfect rally with impossibly fine looking protestors is going on with banners that have peace signs and lukewarm calls to action such as “Join the conversation.” Kendall Jenner – it had to be a Kardashian/Jenner of course! - who is doing a photo shoot on one of the side streets, locks eyes with a millennial, whips off her blonde wig wipes off her lippy, catwalks her way into the ‘conversation’, grabs a can of Pepsi from a basket of cans conveniently placed there, fist bumps with a protestor, and presents the riot police with her peace offering. No shields here, no riot gear, no tear gas… The policeman accepts the can and takes a sip. Big smile. A big cheer. The protest is over. World peace is restored. Just another day in the life of a supermodel, then!
On Wednesday, Bernice King, the daughter of legendary civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., shut the ad down with one scathing tweet; along with a photo of her father being pushed back by police officers during a protest – perhaps hinting at Pepsi’s ill-timed release on Tuesday, she tweeted: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”
On the 49th anniversary of King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, a soda company released an ad which trivialised all the major social issues from women’s rights to Black Lives Matter to Muslim ban and placed a rich, skinny, white, impossibly privileged girl right in the centre of what is generally a story of otherness written by those on the peripheries.
What beggars belief is that not only no one thought to point some of the obvious oversights of good judgement at play here at any point from concept creation to sign off, the following public apology was also lukewarm. In a statement on Wednesday Pepsi announced, “Pepsi was trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize...We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.” Yes, because, under the circumstances, it is Kendall who deserves an excuse. The person who has long cashed her cheque for playing superhero in an offensive ad and spent it on her privileged, non-political life of selfies, runways and designer gear.
As for Nivea, the Middle East marketing team clearly had no scruples about the tagline “White is Purity” shared with the post, “Keep it clean, keep bright. Don’t let anything ruin it, #Invisible”even after previous advertising missteps such as the 2011 campaign, featuring a well-dressed black male clutching the Afro of a mannequin’s head. The tagline, “Re-civilize yourself” which the company later apologised, calling it “inappropriate and offensive.”
Following the 2011 faux pa, Nivea did a review to try to avoid similar missteps. In a statement at the time, the company announced: “Current development and approval processes will be immediately reviewed in order to avoid any kind of future misleading interpretations.” This Tuesday when they took down the offensive post, A Beiersdorf representative said the ad was part of a broader campaign for the deodorant in the Middle East that linked the colour black with strength and white with purity. “We never intended to hurt anybody or to raise any wrong interpretation,” the representative added.
Doubtless, Pepsi will also go through the motions of reviewing current development and approval processed; doubtless, like Nivea did, they will most likely offend again. The sad truth is Pepsi and Nivea are not even the exceptions. An even sadder truth? While I may have joked about the marketing team being “dead team walking” in my latest YouTube video discussing this ad, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that the responsibility the development and approval procedures of these and many other equally inappropriate campaigns (Let’s take a minute to remember the Chinese detergent ad in which the product transformed a black man into a Chinese man) falls on just one team.
Is it lack of representation in global decision chains that is allowing such marketing atrocities to see the light of day? Or are good judgement and common sense just old currency no longer in use? Why was there not a single, albeit lone, voice calling out the BS before it reached anywhere near our screens? How is it that in a multi-gazillion conglomerate’s multi-million campaign team, not a single soul couldn’t see through the banality of a sham rally which looked more like a street party with impossibly cool kids and of course Kendall the saviour who single-handedly delivers conflict resolution with a can of soda?
I am all for checks and balances to improve processes and avoid any future embarrassment for these conglomerates. However, when there is need for a much bigger mind set shift and diverse representation, to explain away such gigantic failures of judgment with half-baked apologies such as “We never intended to hurt anybody” or “we missed the mark” is like handing Martin Luther King Jr. a can of soda. Get real, get teams that represent today’s realities, get employees who can see beyond their noses and get your head out of a Kardashian/Jenner’s backside – that’s how you avoid future missteps.