Once upon a time I worked for an ad agency. We weren’t a huge agency, but I had coworkers who had worked for bigger agencies and I learned a lot about how things work.
So when Pepsi’s protest ad with Kendall Jenner popped up on the internet, I saw a lot of questions.
Like, how did this get past a focus group?
And the truth is – if there was a focus group, it was probably just aimed at younger adults and they asked how they felt about Kendall Jenner. They probably didn’t show ads, but likely asked questions about diversity in advertising and how they felt about ads with a social message like some of the ads at this year’s Super Bowl.
Like, how did this get approved?
The way it works is that the client (Pepsi) tells the ad agency what they want. Which honestly was probably – Coke’s iconic “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” ad, but updated for today’s generation of social activists. Then the ad agency came up with ideas, and Pepsi probably said… can we make it less depressing? And you ended up with what you have.
There were meetings about everything – the photographer, the sweaty cellist, the guy who fist bumps Kendall. And odds are, there weren’t a lot of POC involved. And you know which meetings you’re more likely to be listened to. Pepsi, who probably insisted in a young, hot white girl (see, diverse!), would not be that audience.
So you end in an Emperor’s New Clothes type situation. Where you can’t be 100% honest, you just hope the client realizes it once they’ve assembled it. (Odds are there are alternate takes on that ad agency’s drives) And in this case, Pepsi’s team loved it. So you’re stuck with a bad ad that has your agency’s name on it.
And you can tell that Pepsi loved it, considering their apology was to putting Kendall Jenner in the midst of the controversy – not the people whose decades of work of activism they made a mockery of. They just didn’t get it.
So there you have it. My two cents based on a job I did a decade ago, for a small agency that did those post-secondary ads you probably made fun of if you were home sick from school or work. (Odds are, if you were home a decade or so ago, you might have even seen ME in one of them) The agency also did higher visibility brands, but that wasn’t what I worked on.
Things of note, my lovelies – don’t blame all the multicultural actors who took this gig. They were probably just told they were auditioning for a Pepsi ad and were like… sign me up for that money. They don’t have the luxury of saying no. Kendall Jenner on the other hand? She has money. She could have said no.
(It’s why we blame the marquee actors who take whitewashed roles, but not the actors who take the racist bit parts. One has the luxury of saying no, one is trying to make a living)
There are a number of really great pieces pulling apart the social ramifications of the ad. This one in particular is a must read, by April Reign (the woman who created the #OscarsSoWhite campaign). They aren’t hard to find, just spend some time on Twitter.