Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad: Mistake or subversive strategy?


There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?


This week, Pepsi has been swept up in controversy in connection with an ad that depicted Kendall Jenner solving tension between protesters and police with a can of soda and a smile. The ad directly lifted imagery from Black Lives Matter and anti-Trump protests, including groups of multicultural young people marching in the streets and a woman standing up to law enforcement officers.

Despite the millennial-friendly motifs, the commercial’s unveiling didn’t play out well on Twitter, where it was roundly scorned — including by Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter — and subjected to Photoshop mockery.


Pepsi’s mentions on social media were up more than 7,000% the day the ad debuted, according to Brandwatch, a social media analytics company. In total, Pepsi was brought up more than 1 million times across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

On Wednesday, Pepsi cycled between strategies to mitigate the backlash. First, it defended the ad; a few hours later, the brand had issued a statement apologizing and retracting the ad.

That was followed by a conspiracy theory: Did Pepsi do this on purpose?

Would a global brand really provoke this level of backlash for buzz? Two crisis management experts weighed in.

“I think [Pepsi] played it the way they intended to,” said Eric Schiffer, the chairman of Reputation Management Consultants, an online firm that does brand management. He said the net effect of the ad was positive “because the world’s talking about it.”


He estimated that Pepsi has gotten somewhere between $300 million and $400 million in free media coverage out of the controversy.

Howard Bragman, the founder of Fifteen Minutes PR and the author of “Where’s My Fifteen Minutes,” said he agreed that Pepsi wanted to make an ad that would get people talking. But he doesn’t think the company intended for things to go south as quickly as they did.

All press is not good press.

— Howard Bragman, founder of Fifteen Minutes PR

“All press is not good press,” said Bragman, who has represented clients including Tarek El Moussa, the star of TV’s “Flip or Flop” who drew unwanted publicity with his marital problems, and Steve Sarkisian, who was fired as USC’s football coach amid reports of erratic behavior and alcohol-related issues.

In his view, Pepsi’s marketing people would have known a commercial starring a Kardashian clan member that evoked modern protest imagery would get people’s attention; they probably didn’t think King’s daughter would call them out over it.

But overall, Bragman said, he’d categorize this as a “speed bump” for the brand. Pepsi recognized pretty quickly that things weren’t going well, he said, and the company made the right move by apologizing and pulling the ad.

“I don’t think Pepsi is so naive to think that people wouldn’t talk about this ad,” Bragman said. “Of course you test an ad like this, and it probably tested well. Then again, so did New Coke.”

Follow me on Twitter @jessica_roy.


Nivea’s ‘White Is Purity’ ad campaign did not go well

Feeling stressed? These businesses are thriving on your emotional strain

Column: This maker of a ‘smart’ garage door opener chose the dumbest response to a customer’s bad review