Crisis of the Week: Pepsi Fights Fallout After Ad Backfires

PepsiCo Inc. landed in crisis hot water after airing an ad in which celebrity Kendall Jenner joins a protest against police, then later in the ad hands a police officer a Pepsi. Pepsi pulled the ad less than one day after it started airing, after it was criticized by some for trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement and by others for depicting law enforcement in a poor light. The company was slammed on Twitter, and the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. sent a tweet saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.”

The company issued one statement, saying it “missed the mark” in trying to portray what it thought was a “message of unity, peace and understanding.” 

The experts break down how it’s handled this crisis from a communications perspective.

Anthony Johndrow, co-founder and chief executive, Reputation Economy Advisors: “Pepsi is the flagship brand of PepsiCo Inc., and as such, anything done in its name reflects immediately on the corporate parent. That dynamic explains the immediacy of this crisis, but the company’s failure to acknowledge the difference between product brand and company underpins its weak crisis response.

“Much of the backlash was against a company attempting to use a volatile social issue to sell a fizzy beverage. Instead of acknowledging a decision the company made to enter into a societal debate–or clarifying what their position was in it—Pepsi responded as a brand, at the bottom of the press release, with the words: “Source Pepsi.” Pepsi is not a source, nor is it a legal entity, nor is it even people; it’s a brand with logo and an accompanying taste profile.

“PepsiCo should have authored the response, taking responsibility for the decision to run, and ultimately pull, the ad. Some human voice should have acknowledged that ‘trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding’ without any substance or action behind it was a bad idea. Not only is the response impersonal, it’s disingenuous and fails to own up to why it was trying to project this message in the first place. All Pepsi [seems to be] apologizing for is a poorly executed ad, not for the decision to make the attempt in the first place.”

Jolie Balido-Hart, president, Roar Media: “Pepsi’s response to the uproar over its Kendall Jenner ad–a five-sentence statement beginning with self-justification and ending with an apology to Ms. Jenner–comes across about as flat as a can of day-old soda. Seemingly suggesting a fizzy drink can fix profound social matters, Pepsi’s perceived insensitivity to activists’ suffering and sacrifice was compounded by its somewhat-flippant statement that it ‘did not intend to make light of any serious issue.’ Coming across as an excuse, the statement fails to address the real problem: The widespread sense that Pepsi is, quite simply, out of touch.

“Making matters worse, in crisis situations of this kind, outraged audiences–including those who have personally lived through the hardship of protests and discrimination–[generally] are not as eager to hear apologies extended to role-playing, high-paid supermodels. Although Pepsi acted appropriately in immediately pulling the ad, the tone and content of its apology leave one wanting–and reaffirm the perception of Pepsi as a bit clueless.

“Ironically, this ad and the crisis communications surrounding it have fostered ‘unity’–only not exactly the kind Pepsi had in mind, since the public united to ‘join the conversation’ against the company. A direct, heartfelt apology, regretting the angst Pepsi created and showing it really ‘gets it,’ would have been much more effective in quelling the public backlash than the focus on self-justification. In crisis management, as in other areas of life, owning a mistake with sincerity and visceral regret is key to winning back an alienated public.”

Aaron Kwittken, global chairman and chief executive, Kwittken: “I give Pepsi high marks for the speed in which it responded and for doing the right thing by taking down the ad and for immediately halting the campaign. It wins on intent. But Pepsi loses on content by issuing a non-statement statement and by saying it ‘missed the mark’ in too casual of an attempt to downplay the gaffe. It should have said it made a grave mistake by creating an ad that was insensitive, tone-deaf–and now, regrettable. There was no need to apologize to Kendall Jenner. Poor Kendall? Rather, it should have apologized to the citizens it offended with the ad.

“Would going out with a stronger statement have staved off the backlash and parodies? Maybe not. But, had it gone a little deeper with more conciliatory language, and had it actually issued the statement using its greatest asset, Chief Executive Indra Nooyi, I would almost guarantee this matter would have been a one-day story.

“What does Pepsi do now? I think it needs to ask its internal creative team to donate their time to creating actual public-service announcements that promote gender and ethnic equality, with no mentions of Pepsi or any products. It should pledge the media spend from its aborted campaign toward buying media time for this effort.”