Music: check. Activism: check. Diversity: check.
When Pepsi aired an ad showing millennial supermodel Kendall Jenner reaching out to a police officer with a can of its product during a protest, it must have thought a full array of check boxes meant a successful commercial.
While it is true the components of the mixture theoretically added up to formulaic success, the commercial in its final product oozed qualities of disrespectful satire. Pepsi’s attempt to target young people as a single segment ironically found a way to turn them into a homogenous group — one that was disgusted by the attempt.
It’s worth noting that Pepsi has not been the only company to take advantage of the current political climate by trying to send a message of unity. For example, many others including Airbnb — who has had a far-from-stellar history with racial bias — aired ads during the Super Bowl appealing to diversity and had success with it.
So why did Pepsi fail, while Airbnb and others helped their brands? The commercial fell flat because it was not relatable in the slightest.
For some peculiar reason, it gave protests an appearance reminiscent of a music festival. Lehigh might be considered an apathetic school at times, but demonstrations that have been held on campus such as the rally of solidarity were far from celebratory. It takes hard work to fight against injustice, and it was offensive for real activists to see a commercialized version be used as an advertising strategy.
Another misstep, and perhaps the most expensive one, was making Jenner the star of the show. Though celebrities have the capability to use their elevated platform for good, there must be a degree of authenticity to convince the public they are genuinely invested in the cause. Jenner does not have a public record of change-making.
It’s tempting to give Pepsi the benefit of the doubt and move forward. Some commercials miss the mark, and there is no point harping on it forever. But there is a concrete, logical reason that explains this gaff: Inclusion was entirely lacking in the decision-making process. If any true activists were entrusted with their opinions, the ad would not have been run.
On top of that, when Pepsi made the decision to pull the commercial to avoid further backlash, it only issued an apology to Jenner. If there was any doubt about the misunderstanding at the highest levels of Pepsi, it was removed after such a boneheaded reaction.
Jenner, a 21-year-old who consented and was paid to participate, should not be apologized to. She was part of the process, and her brand is something she should be held accountable for. Pepsi made a horrific miscalculation by apologizing to her and not the greater community who found the commercial distasteful.
In contrast, when Lehigh hired Donald Outing and installed his new position as the vice president for equity and community, it was a great step in the right direction to create a voice of inclusion. Voices like Outing’s need to be present at the highest level of decision making, to avoid situations like Pepsi’s.
Even though Lehigh’s diversity statistics are not the most impressive, the efforts the school is making have been positive, including Diversity Life weekend, an annual tradition that took place this past weekend.
With Outing in the mix, Lehigh is on track for an authentic plan to promote inclusion. Hopefully it can avoid a Pepsi-esque blunder.