Mark Laver, assistant professor of music at Grinnell College, has an excellent piece on the Kendall Jenner/Pepsi ad debacle in Fortune magazine online that is well worth reading. If you’ve not seen the ad, view the long-form version here.
There’s been endless criticism leveled at Pepsi over the ad, and Laver believes we’ve crossed a new threshold in the social media era where public outcry can be heard loud enough and fast enough to get an Ad campaign halted before it even starts. Pepsi’s PR department and Jenner’s publicist are going to be consumed with reputation repair for months.
Laver quite accurately describes the ad as “appropriating music, language, and iconography from the counterculture of the moment to sell merchandise to young consumers.” For Pepsi, this means reaching into the counter-cultural zeitgeist, newly energized by the recent political unrest, and harnessing the loose electricity to sell sugar water.
During my teen years I worked in the fast food industry, where I learned that the soda machine required “charged” carbonated water to make the beverages that completed the value meal trifecta. That word best describes the energy source Pepsi’s agency creatives hoped to couple to their venerable soda pop brand: something electrically charged and wildly popular with their target youth audience.
In the 1978 classic of semiotic analysis, Decoding Advertisements, Judith Williamson observed the siren call of strong cultural meaning values for advertisers. The magic trick is to somehow tap into those meanings using symbols (art and copy) that go beyond simple association and more toward an integration of a brand or product and the social meaning making process in the mind of the consumer. Advertising invites a meaning making and interpellation process, where conscious and unconscious processes link images, emotions, social meaning and products; and where one is enticed to become the subject of the ad and derive meaning through purchase and consumption of the product.
The technique of advertising is to correlate feelings, moods or attributes to tangible objects, linking possibly unattainable things with those that are attainable, and thus reassuring us that the former are within reach. – Judith Williamson
Ads transcend the border between simply meeting a tangible need and manufacturing less tangible and more spiritual desires. Mythical ad man Don Draper notes in a season 1 episode of Mad Men called “The Wheel” that ads create an existential “itch”—an often profound sense of lack—while promising to soothe this itch at the same time. Critical theorist Arthur Berger notes, “Needs are finite, desires are infinite.” What brand wouldn’t want to plug into such an endless power source? What’s more, Berger contends that susceptibility to such appeals is more acute in an affluent society:
Needs are finite, but desires are infinite, and thus, as soon as our needs have been taken care of, we become obsessed with what we don’t have but want. – Arthur Berger
The meaning created and shared in social movements is some of the strongest mojo one can come by in a culture—as strong and deeply felt as religious faith but more about the urgency of the present than the past, and just as sacred.
Much of that which goes by the name advertising is an explicit offer of a sense of identity, meaning, purpose, and community. Most ads now appeal to one or more of these religious dimensions of life. – Alan Hirsch in The Forgotten Ways
It is that sacredness of a movement’s social meaning—it’s affiliative, identity-giving nature—that leads to the uniformly harsh backlash we have seen over the past few days. The stronger the meaning value, the greater the offensiveness in the appropriation. Movements aim to change the world. Soda pop will only change your body—and not in a good way.
Laver points to the blind hubris of Pepsi in doing this for the purpose of selling what is clearly junk food: “It takes things that actually are really important and profoundly meaningful in our world and uses them to help package and sell a product that is tremendously unhealthy.” Yet, such a cultural moment was just too tempting to leave alone for a brand that trades in generational energy.
To put it simply, Pepsi’s ad was so bad and so blatant, their true intentions were all too obvious. Yet they are far from unique in advertising.
Matthew McAllister in The Commercialization of American Culture contends that the mercenary use of social meanings in advertising tends to devalue those meanings in the process:
The obvious purpose of an advertisement is to sell a product…. Everything that is in an advertisement, then, is subordinated to that purpose. By definition, to put a referent system in an ad is to devalue it. When used in an ad, according to the ad’s inherent symbolic hierarchy, the referent system is subordinate to the purpose of selling the product. – Matthew McAllister
Just a few days after the news broke on the Pepsi ad, NBC’s Saturday Night Live satirized the spot in a biting sketch that focused on the ad’s writer-director and the feedback he should have sought before his big-break project moved past the concepting stage. It raised the obvious question: Why didn’t the agency creatives predict the blowback? The clear answer is that advertisers don’t really care to make political statements. They’re more interested in helping consumers make their own political statements by consuming their product as an essential proof text.
Later in the April 8 program Saturday Night Live and host Louis C. K. broadcast an even more piercing sketch that musically expressed gratuitous thanks to a character named “Scott” for his world-changing armchair social media activism—hashtagging and sharing support for many of the same social movements that the Pepsi ad attempts to appropriate.
Therein lies the truth. Scott deceives himself into believing he can hashtag, retweet, share and emoji his way to a social conscience, while today’s biggest brands spend millions make him feel like guzzling a Pepsi makes the real difference. Loose electricity meets empty calories.