The Pepsi advert deserved the anger it provoked

A response to: The Kendall Jenner Pepsi advert – was it worth getting so angry?

An article was published yesterday that argued that the reaction to the recent Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad was part of a wider issue of “political correctness gone too far”.

Its premise was that the removal of the advert was in some way a violation of free speech. But surely it was a triumph for that very cause? The whole point of having the right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint is that all voices can be heard and the most useful conclusion can be reached. Here, people who, individually, would be far less powerful than Pepsi-Cola came together and managed to make a change. The advert was pulled within 24 hours.

Pepsi’s statement following the backlash

But now that it’s been taken off the air, we can’t dismiss their original decision to run it as a “simple mistake”. Nor can we criticise the widespread negative reaction it provoked as “a frenzied retort”. From a position of privilege, it might be easy to dismiss it that way. But to do so would be to make the exact same mistake as Pepsi: to trivialise what is literally a matter of life and death for many protesters.

In their advert, PepsiCo, Inc. attempted to capitalise on the imagery of protest movements, reducing them to a millennial ‘trend’, painting them as some kind of party. This was not the reality for the campaigners in Flint and in Ferguson.

The most blatant example of this appropriation was the similarity between the shot of Jenner handing an officer a can of Pepsi and Leshia Evans walking calmly towards riot police, following the fatal police shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge. Subliminal messaging might be essential to effective advertising, but Pepsi’s use of the gravely serious to sell a can of fizzy drink is unacceptable.

We’re not trying to condemn the author of that particular article – writing like that is part of free speech. However, the article undermines the very dialogue it promotes, by criticising those voicing their anger and pain about Pepsi’s advert for apparently overreacting.

Those who regard the advert as “inconsequential” and undeserving of such a negative backlash are in a lucky position indeed – one in which the trivialisation of protest movements has little effect on their everyday lives. The likes of Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., have had a different experience.

The response to this advert cannot be dismissed. Anger at Pepsi is most certainly justified.

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University of Cambridge