Willson: The controversy over Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi ad is ridiculous

Lauren Willson

Editor’s Note: All opinion section content reflects the views of the individual author only and does not represent a stance taken by the Collegian or its editorial board.

On April 5, one day after its debut, Pepsi pulled an ad due to critical remarks about its purported downplaying of social protests. While this decision demonstrates the company is receptive to consumer opinion it more overtly shows the ever-growing, excessive sensitivity of today’s populace.

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The video ad, which stars supermodel Kendall Jenner, centers around a protest wherein participants hold nonspecific picket signs broadcasting hearts, peace symbols and messages like “join the conversation.”

Jenner, donning a blonde wig, is participating in a photo shoot. The camera also flips to briefer shots of a male brown-skinned cellist and a female Muslim artist. These two join the protest in the street when they take notice of it.

During her shoot Jenner continually glances at the nearby protest. When beckoned to join by the now-outdoors cellist Jenner pulls off her wig, fiercely walks away from her snap-session and strolls into the crowd of protesters.

Moving through the throngs, Jenner passes by numerous diverse individuals: black, white, asian, transgender, etc.

The ad culminates with Jenner handing a Pepsi to one of the police officers engaged in a standoff with the protesters. Following this, all law enforcement-civilian disputes are miraculously eliminated; the crowd erupts in cheers.

The commercial immediately prompted negative responses, especially on social media, for its apparent trivialization of social protest.

Some found the ad’s imagery to be reminiscent of “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations which have been characterized by standoffs between protesters and officers. In particular the shot of Jenner handing a soda to the officer was compared to a 2016 photo of an African-American woman, Ieshia Evans, peacefully standing her ground before several policemen during a BLM demonstration.

However, it should be noted the video does not give all of the camera time to African-Americans. It focuses on personae of all shapes, sizes, genders and ethnicities. Yet I’ve not seen any commentary about the commercial’s diverse cast. Shouldn’t we be celebrating that?

While minimizing the severity of racism, discrimination and oppression is unacceptable I doubt Pepsi intended to provoke controversy. The company issued a statement apologizing for the commercial, asserting they were “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding…we missed [it]…we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.” The company explained they would be removing the advertisement and apologized “for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

Despite Pepsi’s actions the promotion is still being mocked. The commercial’s climax presents a quixotic, rather illogical depiction of how society’s ills can be cured: by sharing pop with a cop.

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Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., commented sardonically via Twitter: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” King has a point: our nation’s woes cannot be cured with the crack of a pull-tab. If this were true Black Lives Matter—which was precipitated by the murder of Trayvon Martin—would not still be prevalent five years after its founding.

Despite the negative backlash I don’t believe Pepsi was intending to make any kind of social commentary. It’s just a crappy ad. Almost anyone possessing half of a brain can recognize that the world’s problems won’t be ameliorated with junk food.

But before jumping on the bandwagon that the company was minimizing the severity of racism, police brutality, etc., consider this: Pepsi is a commercial business.

If their only goal is to sell more product why would they want to promulgate a message of societal ignorance, potentially offending millions?

Honestly, when I viewed the video I thought it did a nice job of incorporating people from all walks of life. While watching the thought going through my mind was not how the videography was “offensive,” but rather why Jenner underwent an outfit change between photo shoot and crowd-entering. If anything the most disconcerting aspect of the commercial is the fact that her second outfit is approximately 90 percent denim.

If you view the commercial without prior exposure to others’ interpretations you might find it does convey an undertone of respecting diversity and embracing the moment.

I won’t disregard the fact that Black Lives Matter is a necessary movement. Discrimination and state violence still sadly exist. But is it really necessary to turn everything into an argument about race? How can we expect to renounce antiquated ideas about skin color if we bring them up every other minute?

Rather than scrutinize the “social commentary” of a soda commercial it would be much more productive to discuss more pressing, relevant issues in the world.

For instance, the same day the ad was released (April 4) was the 49th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Instead of beverage ad rants I would have preferred to see social media feeds filled with messages of equality and fighting for one’s beliefs as MLK did.

In any case, we can forget about the “offensive” commercial as Pepsi has pulled it from circulation. Those previously disgruntled can now refocus on promoting the very things they asserted the ad disparaged, such as law enforcement reform and social equality.

Lauren Willson can be reached at letters@collegian and online at @LaurenKealani