Three years after Alecia Moore, better known as P!NK, made it clear she wasn’t a racially ambiguous woman of colour (because come on, Can’t Take Me Home bamboozled me), she, Beyoncé and Britney Jean Spears formed the trifecta, the Trinity if you will, of Pop to star in Pepsi’s 2004 iconic “We Will Rock You” commercial. Ridley Scott’s 2000 triumph Gladiator heavily influenced the ad and saw the musical juggernauts combine forces to defeat Emperor Enrique Igeslias with the power of Queen. Vibe.com chronicling Beyoncé’s relationship with Pepsi quote her as her saying “I remember Michael Jackson’s commercial …and to think that I’m getting a chance to do this. I know that it’s gonna be perfect.” For the last decade and a half Beyoncé’s Pepsi ads have been just that, evolving in style as she evolved musically. Starting with a spot to accompany her role in MTV’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera, and most recently her 2013 retrospective “Grown Woman”, her “unconventional” $50million deal renewing her relationship with Pepsi in 2012 included the stipulation they “fund to support the singer’s chosen creative projects.” The superstar ensured that not only would they pay her to use her likeness but also financially support her future endeavours. The deal was a stroke of genius.
Making history with Michael Jackson’s 1984 ad, Pepsi broke the mould for non-sports celebrity endorsements. Everyone from Madonna to David Hasselhoff starred in an ad campaign for the brand and up until this last week Pepsi looked to be continuing their advertising industry domination. According to The Sun (apply grain of salt) Pepsi paid Kardashian model Kendall Jenner £40million to appear in the now infamous ad that immediately sparked a backlash when it was released on April 4th. Despite the ad containing a song by grandson of open, irreverent Babylon decrier, Bob Marley, the criticism was so vigorous, galvanised by the social media dominion of Black Twitter™, just over 24 hours after its release Pepsi was forced to release a statement they were pulling the ad from across its platform. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark and we apologise” to who I wondered. “We apologise for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.” Ah yes, missing the mark has become part of their brand.
Connections were quickly made between the ad and Jonathan Bachman’s 2016 photograph of protestor Iesha Evans, a nurse, in Baton Rouge during the unrest that erupted after the police killing of unarmed Alton Sterling. The image so clearly articulated the juxtaposition between a militarised police force and a peaceful civilian woman, it won the World Press Photo Prize for Contemporary Issues, first prize singles. A mugshot of Iesha Evans, taken after her arrest that day, was released thus supporting right wing media’s assertion, protestors were trouble makers. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards claimed “officers' use of riot gear and weaponry was an appropriate response’ according to The Daily Mail (just keep your salt in hand) who also reported council member John Delgado was “furious” at the $100,000 the city government, Louisiana State Police, the East Baton Rouge Sheriff’s Office and the local District Attorney all had to pay to protestors wrongfully arrested.“I have no interest in paying $100,000 in taxpayer dollars to people who are coming into our city to protest” he said. As if the protestors were on a jolly, just popping down to Baton Rouge to have a laugh instead of protesting the slaying of an unarmed black man by their overeager and racist police officers in the face of an army ready squad of thugs protected by their titles as “law enforcement.”
While activists Shaun King and DeRay Mckesson became the faces of the Black Lives Matter movement, black women created it and remain the machine behind the fight for the protection of African Americans specifically, in this case, and black people across the diaspora against state violence. The brainchild of Alicia Garcia, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, Black Lives Matter was created in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. These women have worked for years to spread their message and actively, by proposing legislation change and organising protests, work to enfranchise those previously voiceless and unrepresented. Reports flooded in about how “devastated” Kendall Jenner was, ensuring we knew exactly how innocent she was in all of this, painting Pepsi, rightly so, as a beast who tied her up in an “ironclad agreement.” The problem for Jenner arises when you learn from a Entertainment Tonight Online source she did have approval rights in her contract but that “Kendall relied on Pepsi to do their due diligence and trusted that it would tasteful.” First of all, I’m not buying this “source” business- come out of the shadows, Kris, we all know it’s you and your crew. Secondly, what this means is Kendall most probably saw the monstrosity of an ad before its release and thought “yes, fantastic, this is wonderful."
For the purposes of this piece, I scrolled back through Kendall Jenner’s Instagram feed and discovered not one mention of political activism or support of a cause. This is why this woman, (cos if at 17, Trayvon Martin could be murdered and spoken of as if he was comparable to the man who killed him, at 21 years old, Jenner can be criticised as a woman) and her clique could see this commercial and believe it was fit for consumption. Her choice to be ignorant about the struggles of African Americans, her failure to understand what those struggles look like visually and see how her ad mimicked and minimised the desperation of those, like Iesha Evans, seeking justice will not be forgiven by the conjuring of the construct of white women’s fragility and powerlessness.
Yes, Pepsi’s in-house ad agency are ultimately responsible for this mess. I revel in Digi Day UK’s news of advertising agencies running to “use debacle to blast in-house studios.” While I understand those kicking up a stink do so only because in-house facilities exist to be “cost effective” and disallow agencies to compete for contracts, I'm happy Suzanne Pope, a freelance copy editor, makes it clear “Yes, you have people who are capable of doing the work. But they aren’t capable of telling you you’re about to make a horrible mistake.” It is important all ad agencies and brands recognise and respect the intelligence of social media. Pepsi aren’t the only ones to make this error in judgement, ten years ago Playstation Portable “White Is Coming” ad had people in an uproar , and when Nivea’s “White Is Purity” ad was released just days before Pepsi x Jenner, it too was similarly roundly condemned across the Twittersphere. These adverts and their tone-deafness all point to one thing; if there were black people in the room, they were either ignorant about the effects of the ad or they had no power to make change. Both options are a problem and while competition amongst agencies might be good for business, awareness of the role of advertising in promoting messages of white supremacy will be better. Pepsi’s message? If people drink their diabetes concoction, and are white while doing so, they will diffuse centuries of unresolved racial, socio-political tension and avoid arrest.
I highly doubt Kendall’s career will suffer too badly from the fallout nor should it. In the case of this model, poor judgement should not be career ending. Pepsi, however, is cancelled. They can keep their trash apology. Apologising to Kendall Jenner as if she doesn’t have forty million $1 bills with which to dry her tears and ease her self-inflicted embarrassment. Apologise to Iesha Evans and the black women responsible for organising the protests you saw fit to be inspired by but not include, choosing instead to decentre the role of black women in the resistance against the community destroying police and those who protect them. The erasure of black women from this image of protest as if we are not on the front lines of every social justice cause, being arrested and denied our basic human rights will not soon be forgotten by me. Talmbout “a global message of unity.” Listen here, there is no unity without black women. We are more than your assistants. We're in charge of, create and live the experiences you profit from.
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