image: Pepsi

image: Pepsi

Pepsi sparked outrage online after releasing a “tone def” commercial meant to channel the current climate of protests and evoke a message of unity. While much has been made of the two-and-a-half-minute commercial, which stars “it” model Kendall Jenner, most articles center on where Pepsi went wrong, what it should have done differently, and how viewers are responding. What few articles address is: Does Pepsi stand to gain anything at all from this train wreck of an advertisement, which it has since announced it will pull from the air.

The ad, created by Pepsi’s in-house team, Creators League Studio, has been slammed largely for being “exploitative brand social activism” for the sake of capitalism, in AdWeek’s words. In short: the commercial comes off as contrived and opportunistic, and yet, according to data from Amobee Brand Intelligence, Pepsi’s digital content engagement increased significantly (366 percent in just a day). That is not to say such engagement is positive; it is not … at all.

While the commercial, entitled, “Jump In,” has been uniformly lambasted, there is an (unpopular) argument that Pepsi has done something right, at least if the longstanding notion of “No Press is Bad Press” holds any weight here. The fact that consumers, particularly millennials – the pesky group of consumers that is, according to studies, completely immune to traditional advertising – are responding at all says something.

In suggesting that this ad stands to have any real and lasting impact on Pepsi’s bottom line, we are assuming that consumers will actually alter their own purchasing behavior because of it. That is not a notion to be taken lightly, and it likely will not turn out to be true for at least a few reasons. One: Advertising is so ephemeral and modern-day consumers’ attention spans so short that this massive misstep on the part of Pepsi will likely be old news in the very near future. Two: Consumers have shown in the past that even the most controversial of ad campaigns do not necessarily impact their buying behavior. And three: Getting consumers to do anything, let alone, actively change their preferences IS REALLY HARD. Will one ad make them opt for Coke? Almost certainly not. 

For some examples, (note: these have to do with sexually explicit ads and thus, are not the most perfect match for the Pepsi commercial), consider American Apparel. The now almost defunct – but at one point objectively thriving (as of 2007, it was the largest manufacturer of t-shirts in the U.S.) – brand built its business on offensive ads. One of Yves Saint Laurent’s most well-known ads ever – its 2000 Opium perfume ad featuring a naked Sophie Dahl – landed a top spot on the British Advertising Standards Authority’s list of the most complained-about ads. That same perfume is one of the brand’s best-selling fragrances to date. Gucci’s most famous advertisement to date, which featured model Karmen Kass with a “G” shaved into her pubic hair, has stood the test of time despite being considered off-putting to many. During the time that the controversial campaign – and many others – ran, Gucci’s sales skyrocketed. 

The Atlantic seems to think Pepsi is on to something. In an article, titled, “Pepsi’s New Ad Is a Total Success,” Ian Bogost posits:

The genius of this decision is that it satisfies everyone. The Kardashian fanatics got their Kendall Jenner fix. The agitators get to feel that they have successfully redressed a big brand company; a minor victory in a time of so many defeats. The earnest, probably-white folk who enjoyed Pepsi’s alternative to constant politicization got their saccharine status-quo—and now they also get a branded excuse to issue a counter-offensive to the progressives who insisted on bringing politics into innocuous soft drinks (surely it’s coming). The media get their scoops, and their think-pieces (like this one). And these outcomes, incompatible though they are, all return attention to Pepsi—which is all it really wanted in the first place.

We will have to wait and see if the brand’s sales suffer.