Pepsi: Protests, Police, and Pop 🪧

Case Studied

How Pepsi‘s Infamous Kendall Jenner Ad Got Pulled Down in Less than 24 Hours

There are plenty of advertising trends out there. They all require a discerning eye to be successful, but especially so when it involves any kind of political messaging. 

Pepsi learned this lesson in 2017 when they ran a two-and-a-half-minute ad featuring reality TV star and model Kendall Jenner…before pulling it one day after it aired. 

This week, Case Studied explores why Pepsi’s ad was such a massive miss and how to avoid similar failures for your brand.

The Brief:

Pepsi started an in-house content creation arm called Creators League Studio in 2016. At the time, Digiday wrote a story about the opening of the studio that began with this statement:

“Before this week, 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. Today, it takes an hour… the company hopes (Creators League) will let marketers, not agencies, sit in the creative driver’s seat.”

The same year, Pepsi’s president Brad Jakeman hyped up the new studio, stating, “Instead of five pieces of content a year, a brand like Pepsi needs about 5,000 pieces of content a year. Instead of taking six months to develop an ad, we have six hours or six days. And instead of costing $2m, it needs to cost $20,000.”

Jakeman went on to say, “There is no infrastructure to advertisers to be able to quickly produce that content. You have to patch it together. Certainly the traditional agencies can’t do it.”

These statements didn’t age well. 

The Execution:

Pepsi’s ad with Jenner showed the model on a photo shoot when she notices protestors marching down the street. Many are holding their fists in the air and carrying vaguely worded signs that say “Love” and “Join the conversation.” 

The scene is a clear reference to the Black Lives Matter protests. But the commercial’s protestors are shown dancing, playing instruments, and smiling—a stark difference from the BLM protests that occurred just one year prior after the high-profile killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castille.

After being motioned by one of the marchers, Jenner leaves the photo shoot, takes off her blonde wig, and wipes away her lipstick as she joins the protest. She grabs a can of Pepsi from an ice bucket and goes up to the front line of the protest. 

Then the big moment came: Jenner walks up to an officer, hands him a Pepsi, which he takes a sip of, and all the protestors start cheering, throwing fists in the air, high-fiving, and hugging. 

The officer looks over at his fellow policeman and smiles, shrugging. The end card reads “Live bolder, Live louder, Live for now.”

Even though Pepsi pulled the ad the day after it aired, it’s still viewable online and apparently, people are watching. This video has almost 5.5m views, while the SNL spoof of the commercial has 11m. 

It’s easy to see what Pepsi was going for here. It’s reminiscent of Coca-Cola’s Hilltop ad from the 1970s. But unlike that wildly successful Coke commercial, Pepsi’s felt, among many other things, inauthentic, dishonest, and demeaning to the issue of racism and police violence.

The Results:

Criticism of Pepsi’s ad absolutely popped off on social media. Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., posted a photo of her father being pushed by police with the caption, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Others made the point to compare the photo of Jenner with the iconic photo of Ieshia Evans being arrested by police dressed in riot gear in Baton Rouge. 

Elle Hearns, the Executive Director of the Marsha P Johnson Institute, and a former organizer for Black Lives Matter, said the ad “plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilizing protests.”

Pepsi issued an apology, stating “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

2016 was a tough year for Pepsi. Its brand value dropped by 4% to $18.3b according to Brand Finance. While it’s not clear how much the commercial impacted this, many social media users declared that they would boycott the company’s products. 

Ultimately, the whole debacle is a cautionary tale of when company don’t get enough:

  • 🌎 Diverse perspective
  • 📋 External perspective 
  • 📊 Market perspective

Advertising agency founder Andy Nairn of Lucky General summed it up well: “Look, I own an ad agency so I’m sure people will say I have a vested interest here, but what happened at Pepsi clearly shows the dangers of not having an external perspective,” Nairn said. “If you run an in-house creative department like Pepsi does, you need to really interrogate your own approach and make sure you’re not blinkered by your own brand. It is clear Pepsi didn’t do that.” 

Nairn went on to say, “It is basic common sense that if you are surrounded by people who live and breathe your brand when creating an ad, then you're more prone to disaster than working with an ad agency, who will take a more balanced approach.”

“Yes, an agency will take longer to make an ad, but a longer trial and error approach typically avoids controversy so it’s worth it.”

The Takeaways:

Companies make mistakes with advertising all the time. But not all of them are quite as large or quite as visible as Pepsi. No matter the size of your company or the industry you’re in or the ads you’re running, there’s a lot to learn from this disaster.

1. Don’t sleep on market research

Pepsi made a commercial about protest movements without reaching out to protest groups. If they engaged with organizers and people who are on the front lines, they could’ve informed their creative approach with those insights.


There have been wildly successful campaigns built off a single, unexpected insight from market research (we wrote about it: remember, Old Spice?). Test the market waters before you dive into a campaign. It will make a difference.

2. Prioritize diversity and inclusion

Diversity and inclusion isn’t just good for humanity, it’s good for business. It’s been proven time and again that diverse, inclusive companies are more likely to make better, bolder decisions. Diversity of thought, racial diversity, gender diversity—it all makes a difference. 

Make sure you have diverse voices at your table, and create a safe environment for those voices to be used and heard.

3. Recognize the value in external experts

Whether you’re at Pepsi or a small B2B startup, drinking too much of the Kool Aid can be an issue. It’s easy to miss really important things like tone or perception when you only see things through the lens of your brand. 

The perspective agencies provide can have a huge impact on your campaigns, and your own peace of mind. Those external experts can act as the referee who calls out anything that seems out of bounds.

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