Pepsi has withdrawn and apologized for a new ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner, after the company faced a backlash for a video that co-opted the imagery of protest movements to sell soda.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” the company said in a statement to the Associated Press. “Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize.”
The video, which Pepsi had planned to use in a global ad campaign, featured reality TV star and model Jenner coming across a scene of protest. Jenner joins the crowd, which approaches a line of police officers. What could be a tense standoff in the real world defuses into cheers and smiles when the Keeping up with the Kardashians star picks up a can of cola and offers it to an officer.
The image of Jenner approaching the police clearly referenced the iconic photograph of Ieshia Evans, an 18-year-old black woman who stood tall in the face of heavily armored riot police during a Black Lives Matter protest following the fatal shooting of Alton Sterling by police in 2016.
The audacity of co-opting the visual language of resistance movements to sell sugary beverages prompted an immediate and harsh backlash on social media.
Bernice King, the daughter of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, joined the fray on Wednesday, posting a photo of her father with the tag, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” The video was released on 4 April, the 49th anniversary of King’s assassination.
Pepsi initially defended the video, which it said “reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony”, even as the brand became the subject of an endless stream of mocking memes.
Jenner was also the target of much ridicule. “A caucasian, blonde, classically beautiful, affluent, kid born into celebrity probably isn’t the person you need to represent struggle and civil unrest,” wrote Eric Thomas, a senior partner with Saga Marketing, in a post on LinkedIn.
“We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position,” Pepsi said in its statement.
Pepsi is not the first corporation to attempt to capitalize on the energy of social movements and political protest. Ride-hail company Lyft was widely mocked in March when its CEO described his company as “woke”.
On the opposite side of the spectrum from brands trying to tap into the fervor of the anti-Trump “resistance” is Nivea, the skincare brand which on Tuesday apologized for an advertisement that featured the slogan “White is purity”.
The advertisement was greeted with cheers by white supremacists on the internet, prompting Nivea to realize that it had made a terrible mistake.