PEPSI’S ADVERTISEMENT CO-OPTED MOVEMENT                                        

How Pepsi’s Advertisement Co-opted a Human Rights Movement, Why They Made It, and Why People Reacted the Way They Did

Gillian M. Wilson

Linfield College

How Pepsi’s Advertisement Co-opted a Human Rights Movement, Why They Made It, and Why People Reacted the Way They Did


A recent Pepsi advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner was pulled after it faced backlash on social media. In the advertisement, Kendall Jenner, a member of the famous Kardashian family, is shown at a modeling shoot. As an article in Rolling Stone described it, “Jenner leaves behind her modeling shoot and blond wig, breaking ranks on a vague protest march by handing a handsome white police officer a Pepsi” (Vilanova, 2017). Pepsi afterwards issued a statement that it was “trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding,” and apologized for and withdrew the advertisement. Regardless of its goal, Pepsi ended up misrepresenting human rights movements such as the Black Lives Matter movement. In my paper I will explore how Pepsi co-opted the Black Lives Matter movement for their brand, and what may have motivated them to do so. I will compare the current relationship between businesses and the Black Lives Matter movement to the relationship between businesses and civil rights from the past. I will explore why brands choose to take a stand on social issues and how they persuade consumers to support their brands. I will also explain why viewers disliked the advertisement, and how Pepsi’s advertising team affected how it was produced.

Pepsi’s Co-Optation of Black Lives Matter Protest

        One of the reasons why the advertisement misrepresented the Black Lives Matter movement specifically is that part of it mirrored an event that had recently occurred at a protest. Pepsi’s use of this imagery could be seen as co-optation. Co-optation is described as “the process of absorbing new elements into the leadership or policy-determining structure of an organization as a means of averting threats to its stability or existence” (Trumpy, 2008, p. 481). Pepsi’s advertisement co-opted the image of Ieshia Evans, a woman  “whose dignity and calm as she was arrested this past summer during a protest crystallized racial conflict in America for many” (Vilanova, 2017).  The image, taken by Jonathan Bachman, became an iconic image for the Black Lives Matter movement.

There is a marked difference between real protests and Pepsi’s imagined one. While Ieshia Evans was an African-American woman who protested despite the danger, Kendall Jenner is a Caucasian woman who would not be in danger in the same way at a protest. Having a member of the privileged majority represent the struggles of those trying to enact change at protests is not an accurate representation. For many people, Kendall Jenner does not represent the reality of many protesters. As Woodall suggests, Pepsi should truly understand the message behind the movement before commenting (2017).

Another issue with the advertisement was that it showed the protest without focusing on any actual issues. This was shown through the signs in the protest which read “join the conversation.” Depicting a more focused protest would help to represent the movement correctly, although admittedly it could also deter customers who disagree with the cause.

 Past Connection between Business and Civil Rights        

In 2013, Russell and Opdycke Lamme looked at the relationship between businesses and Social Movement Organizations (SMOs) from 1950-1970. From the perspective of SMOs, the Civil Rights Movement  gave Black Americans an opportunity to put pressure on businesses to support their cause (Russell & Opdycke Lamme, 2013). “Black Americans harnessed publicity to convince other Americans how unequal their lives were. Martin Luther King, Jr. concluded that it would be most effective to target businesses because they were vulnerable to consumer pressure, which often led to media coverage” (Russell & Opdycke Lamme, 2013, p. 63). The same is true today, and Pepsi may have felt it needed to show a brand perspective on social issues in order to gain customers that are part of SMOs like Black Lives Matter.

People did target Pepsi after it aired the advertisement. They voiced their opinions on it, which led to many media outlets covering the story. Twitter was one medium that was used to respond to the advertisement. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter Bernice King tweeted: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi” (2017, April 5). King’s ironic tweet highlighted the issue that Pepsi implied that merely giving a police officer a Pepsi could solve all racial problems.

 Just like Pepsi may be, the some of the businesses that Russell and Opdycke Lamme looked at were ultimately acting in their own interests, which is something that the public now is able to see through (2013). “Many of the tactics employed by business to address civil rights were, ultimately, short-term attempts to quiet public outcry rather than efforts to initiate long-term social change” (Russell & Opdycke Lamme, 2013, p. 71). How businesses reacted in the past could have set a precedent for how companies handle similar situations today.

The Civil Rights Movement gave businesses the chance to do something for the good of the people (Russell & Opdycke Lamme, 2017,) and the Black Lives Matter movement is giving modern day businesses the same chance. Businesses’ responses to social justice issues matter, as they could be able to help enact social change. This is true no matter whether the businesses are past or present. In a way, current social justice movements could have been an opportunity for Pepsi to have a concrete part in furthering a cause. However, when their team just aired an advertisement, it was not enough. Concrete actions speak louder than words.

Goodvertising as Motivation to be a “Caring Brand”

        It is important to note that the public is able to tell the difference when a brand seems to show support for a cause without being fully invested in it. Minár (2016) uses the term “Goodvertising” to describe the new way that brands are showing that they actually care about social issues:

“Goodvertising does not mean that a socially sensitive subject is simply added to the content presented by the brand. This is not how a brand that cares is built...for a brand that is searching for ways to engage and tap into this next generation of consumers, showing them that you care is critical, but you must do so authentically... These savvy consumers have a good nose for phoniness. They know when you’re merely supporting a cause to sell your product.” (Minár, 2016, p. 13)

The gap between the advertisement that Pepsi produced and the above description of how to be a “brand that cares” helps to illustrate what many people understood when seeing the Pepsi advertisement. The public was able to see that the advertisement was not authentic to the cause, and did not represent it correctly. It was likely Pepsi’s goal to show that its brand truly cared, but it fell short. When Pepsi pulled the advertisement, they stated: “Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue." To show understanding as a brand, Pepsi could have represented the Black Lives Matter movement more accurately. Doing so could result in withdrawing Kendall Jenner from their advertisement. Pepsi could instead have focused on a Black American as the central figure in the advertisement.

        According to Minár (2016,) the reason that being a “caring brand” is so crucial has to do with the new generation of shoppers who are Millenials. “This generation’s purchase decisions are influenced by their opinions of a company’s cause-marketing initiatives, with almost half of Millennial respondents saying they’re more likely to buy a brand they know supports a cause” (Minár, 2016, p. 10). Because of this, it is more important than ever for brands to be fully invested in the causes they show support for.

        Pepsi’s Ad Choice in Relation to Advertising Persuasiveness

        As mentioned in the last section, millennials often use ad blockers to prevent advertisements from appearing. They are able to avoid advertisements that they consider annoying or misleading (qtd. in Ahmed & Ashfaq, 2013). Because of this, it is important to gain consumer interest in advertisements so that viewers won’t block or skip them.

One way to keep a viewer’s attention focused on an advertisement is to feature a celebrity face that they are likely to recognize. Ahmed and Ashfaq (2013) found that both brand image and celebrity endorsement are key elements in the persuasiveness of advertisements and could help sway consumers’ opinion of a brand. This is likely why Pepsi chose to include a celebrity like Kendall Jenner in their advertisement. Featuring a well-known celebrity like Jenner helped to promote a certain image of Pepsi’s brand, although it may not have been the image that they intended. Many audience members read the meaning of the advertisement in a way opposite to what the producers hoped for which resulted in Pepsi taking down their advertisement.

Why Consumers Disliked Pepsi’s Ad

Yao, Chen, and Xu (2015) say that for consumers to purchase from a brand, their self identity needs to match up with the brand’s identity. This concept is called self-consistency. “Self-consistency has a significant positive impact on consumers' purchase intention, brand satisfaction, and brand loyalty (Yao, Chen, & Xu, 2015).

Therefore, the reason that many viewers disagreed with the Pepsi advertisement is that it indicated that the brand’s views on social justice movements was not the same as their own. The way that many people see the significance and importance of Black Lives Matter did not match up with how Pepsi seemed to represent it in a trivial way. This causes a disconnect between the brand and the consumer.

How the Advertising Team Affects the Ad Outcome

After the backlash Pepsi faced for its advertisement, the question arises as to why the advertising team didn’t anticipate the response. One reason could be a possible lack of diversity in the team. The advertisement was made by Pepsi's in-house content team, Creators League Studio. The studio is a “4,000-square foot content studio in New York...that the company hopes will let marketers, not agencies, sit in the creative driver’s seat” (Pathak, 2017). The studio has 10-15 people on their full time staff (Pathak, 2017). Before May 2016 when Creators League opened, “if Pepsi needed to get an edit made to an online film or piece of content, it would involve sending the piece off to an agency, who then in turn would perhaps send it an editor — a process that took, on average two weeks” (Pathak, 2017). Now it takes much less time, but the advertisements are not going through any outside sources that could add diversity to the editing process.

Drumwright and Murphy (2009) interviewed advertising professionals and agencies about issues of diversity in the advertising industry. They conducted in-depth interviews with advertising practitioners within the context of the ad agency. One industry leader that Drumwright and Murphy (2009) interviewed pointed out that the advertising industry does not accurately represent the diversity of the U.S. population and that there are not enough opportunities for minorities.The professionals interviewed said that the diversity problem was partly the advertising agencies’ faults for who they hired, but also there are not enough minorities gravitating towards the field (Drumwright & Murphy, 2009). Because there are so few minorities in the field, young minorities do not consider the profession for themselves (Drumwright & Murphy, 2009). One solution to this problem could be generating interest in the industry for minorities at a high school level (Drumwright & Murphy, 2009).

The issue of diversity affects many advertising teams, including Pepsi’s. With a more diverse and larger team, Pepsi could have had more perspectives during the creative process. Its advertising team would be better able to anticipate audience responses to what they produced. If Pepsi had had a more diverse team of people working on their advertisement, there is a greater chance that one of those people would have noticed potential problems and been able to change them.

Majority vs. Minority Response to Advertisements

Johnson and Grier (2011) show that “minority groups' members respond more favourably to advertisements targeting them, whereas majority groups' members respond more unfavourably to advertisements not targeting them” (p. 234). This causes a conflict when brands are trying to reach multiple parts of the population at once.

The solution to targeting a whole population is multicultural advertising. It is defined as “a type of advertising that aims to simultaneously reach culturally diverse target audiences through the use of cultural representations...from multiple cultural backgrounds” (Johnson & Grier, 2011, p. 236). Pepsi’s commercial used this type of advertising, and showed people of different cultures in their video. However, simply showing them proved not to be enough for audiences to view the ad as authentic. This could be because the focus was less on the diverse people in the background, and more on Kendall Jenner.


There are a large number of factors that played into Pepsi’s team creating their advertisement the way they did, and also the audience reacting the way that they did. Pepsi was motivated to show that it is a “brand that cares,” and to appeal to as much of the population as possible However, the public found the advertisement to be shallow and believed the Pepsi was just trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement. With all the complicated factors that played into the subject, it is possible to see how Pepsi did not foresee the negative outcome of their commercial. Despite this, the negative outcome may have been avoided if more diverse people had been able to proof-check the advertisement before it went public. This illustrates the problem with Pepsi using an in-house team with only 10-15 members for the finalization of their advertisements. The Pepsi advertisement serves as an example of how much diversity on advertising teams matters, and how the public is likely to react to advertisements.


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