Communications and public affairs professionals collectively gasped last week when Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner hit the Internet, generating scorn far deeper than soda preference. Much was said about why the ad was offensive and what it signified about corporate America’s lack of diversity and cultural awareness. Buried underneath the outrage, however, is an opportunity to reflect on how companies should communicate about politically-charged topics. Below are some lessons from the Pepsi debacle.
Know your history
Pepsi failed to acknowledge that protests hold greater significance than fads. The political activism imagery mimicked in the ad originated long before the dawn of reality TV. Pepsi made no attempt to acknowledge the history of protest movements in the U.S. and the emotionally heavy reasons why people march. When wading into political territory, always demonstrate an understanding of the issues and their origins.
Walk in my shoes
Amazingly no one in Pepsi’s creative department or along the approval process thought the concept trivialized the issues that fuel protests, like racism, inequality, and violence. The ad failed to anticipate the reaction of the millions that identify with the messages on protests signs and feel their rights, or the rights of others, are being violated or threatened. Challenge yourself to see controversial issues from other people’s perspectives and predict how the audience will feel.
Consider the optics
Beware of the message your images could unintentionally be sending. Pepsi sought to position their product as a unifier; people of all races, backgrounds, and political beliefs enjoy Pepsi. By reaching across the divide and establishing a commonality, Jenner created harmony between two opposing factions. The ad’s message was well-intentioned, but the optics missed the mark. The image of Jenner approaching the police offer is too closely reminiscent of the iconic photo of Ieshia Evans standing tall against police in riot gear during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge. The protestors in the ad were smiling and laughing, which appeared insensitive and clueless.
The ad captures one truth about the current climate; the political discord is impossible for household names to ignore. Jenner tries to carry on with her photo shoot, but the commotion of the passing protest is too distracting. She gives up posing for the camera, discards her blond wig, and joins the march.
No major brand can smile and ignore the headlines, no matter where their leadership, stakeholders, and customers fall on the political spectrum. Eventually, like Jenner, they will be drawn into the conversation. Whether you live in D.C. and can hear protests from your office or the protests in the distance are more metaphorical, companies must acknowledge the political strife with thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and heart. Now more than any time in recent memory, they operate in an environment marked by division and hostility. How companies communicate during politically transformative times may define their brand for decades to come.