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The Best of the Worst: 2017’s PR Disasters - #1: Pepsi “Live for Now”

As 2017 draws to a close, it’s time to look back at the year it has been, a year that just seemed to start low and then test the limits of how low low can go. And as we’re currently inundated with a continuing stream of awful stories about the misdeeds and sometimes crimes of high profile men, I thought a bit of reflection on the PR disasters of a more innocent time might remind people that it’s not that hard to stay out of trouble in the first place.

So, with that, here is the first in a series of posts that explore some of the most reputation-busting stories from 2017, looking at what exactly went wrong and how it could have been avoided in the first place.

Our first PR disaster happened back in early April, when Pepsi found itself in the midst of an uproar over the "Live for Now" short film/made-for-web commercial starring supermodel Kendall Jenner.

The spot featured the (white) model sashaying through a protest that, whether consciously-done or not, obviously evoked the then-recent Black Lives Matter marches. In the video, Kendall ends up witness to a standoff with police. She hands a uniformed officer a Pepsi, and voila, problems solved.

The backlash was immediate, with vehement criticism on two fronts. First, for cultural appropriation, or the taking of something that is an important part of a minority culture by the dominant culture. Second, for its trivialization of Black Lives Matter, which looked a whole lot like Pepsi lacked respect for an important societal movement.

Once the uproar began, Pepsi did the right thing. In less than 24 hours, the video was removed from circulation and an apology was issued, one that acknowledged they’d “missed the mark” in their attempt to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding.”

In these types of situations, even the best intentions won’t pull you out of the PR abyss. In this case, the message of peace looked to audiences like the commercialization of a pivotal cultural moment. This isn’t a new tactic, but it is an increasingly tricky proposition. What may have been perceived as acceptable ten years ago might be considered offensive today. So, while brands may look at current events and see opportunities to be part of an important story, one with a ready-made and engaged audience, they have to tread very very carefully. Pepsi didn’t, and they ended up looking opportunistic and insulting.

The lesson that businesses and communicators can learn from the disastrous Pepsi commercial is the importance of knowing your audience. This commercial incited a lot of speculation about how this ad ever saw the light of day. After all, productions like this one, with a big star and budget to match, don’t get greenlit easily. How could the folks in charge not have known this would be a very expensive mistake?

Perhaps it’s a matter of having the wrong people involved in the approvals process. Or not having the right people in on it. Maybe Pepsi could have saved their reputation (and ad budget) if they’d just had a more diverse set of decision makers.


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