The Pepsi Consternation

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Some ads are born controversial, some ads achieve controversy, and some ads have controversy thrust upon them.  But in the case of the infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, we might say that this one accomplished all three attainments at once, and if you are looking for an introductory-level lesson on popular cultural semiotics, you couldn't find a better candidate for analysis than this.


There are a number of reasons why the Pepsi/Jenner ad is such a good topic for an introduction to pop cultural semiotics.  First, pretty much everyone knows about it, and though it was yanked shortly after its premiere, it will be available for viewing for years to come, and the dust that it raised will not be settling soon.  This one is virtually guaranteed to have legs.


Second, the fact that so many people responded immediately to the ad with what amounts to a semiotic analysis of it demonstrates that cultural semiotics is not some sort of academic conspiracy designed to "read things into" harmlessly insignificant popular cultural artifacts.  All over America, people who may have never even heard of the word "semiotics" instantly performed sophisticated analyses of the Pepsi ad—my favorite example is the reviewer who noted how Kendall Jenner thrusts her blonde wig into the hands of a black assistant without even looking at the woman, as she (Jenner) heads off to join the march —to point out in detail what was wrong with it.  The SNL takedown alone is priceless.


I hardly need to repeat all the details of those analyses here: that the ad was "tone deaf"; that it was co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement in order to sell soda (Thomas Frank would say that the ad was a perfect example of the "commodification of dissent); that it managed to tokenize non-whites while putting a white celebrity at the center of attention.  It's all there, and, all in all, I can't think of a better exercise than to play the ad in class and go through it with a fine-tooth comb to see just what it was doing, and why it failed so badly.


Just to offer some somewhat less-obvious things to consider while analyzing this ad, I would note, first, that it can be included in an advertising system that contains Coca Cola's famous "I'd like to teach the world to sing" commercial from 1971.  Pepsi's ad was clearly created in the same spirit, but its abject failure marks a critical difference that bears further attention.  Now, like 1971, 2017 America is in the midst of widespread, and often bitter, cultural and political conflict, so one can't simply say that those were more innocent times to explain the difference in response to Pepsi's attempt at selling soda by trying to look culturally forward and hip to the moment.  But I do think that people are much more alert to media semiotics today than they were then, and thus more able to spot what Pepsi was trying to do.  Probably more importantly, the Coke ad didn't pretend to stage a street demonstration; it put together its own event (pseudo-event, I should say), which, though smarmy, made its own direct statement without the use of celebrities.  It wasn't authentic, but it was a lot less phony than the Pepsi ad.  That may have been part of the difference in reactions, too.


But the key difference, I believe, was the use of an already somewhat dubious celebrity in the Pepsi ad (Kendall Jenner belongs to an ever-growing line a RTV-created figures who are "famous for being famous") that its creators (mistakenly) believed would be immediately embraced by their target audience of millennials.  Indeed that is the narrative line that the ad assumes, which, in brief, runs like this: as a large crowd of young protesters (complete with electric guitar-and cello-backed band—with break dancers!) marches through urban streets in protest of some unidentified cause, glamorous model Kendall Jenner (whom the ad's audience is expected to recognize) is working a fashion shoot, wearing a blonde wig, stiletto heels, and a lot of makeup.  As the marchers walk past her, she looks troubled, and then decides to flick the shoot—doffing her wig, wiping off her lipstick, and somehow (somehow!) changing into blue jeans and a denim jacket—to join in.  She is immediately made the center of the whole thing, with all the marchers smiling at her in joy, and then going crazy with joy when she hands a Pepsi to a young cop assigned to riot duty (where's his armor, helmet and facemask?), who accepts it and takes a drink. 


The whole thing reminds me of an old John Lennon music video that shows John and Yoko leading some sort of protest march, in which it is clear that the only thing being demonstrated is the star power of John Lennon.  Now, the Lennon footage may or may not have been from a real march, but in creating a wholly bogus march for Kendall Jenner (who is hardly known for her social activism), what the Pepsi ad is really saying (contrary to their publicity department's frantic, and ultimately futile, attempts to defend the ad as a fine statement of "global" consciousness) is that what matters in America is celebrity power and wealth.  Thus, there's a good reason why the ad's critics are focusing on Jenner as well as Pepsi, because the ad is as much about her as it is about soda pop.  Someone in marketing presumed that millennials (who have been product- branded from birth) wouldn't notice the implications of that.  It is thus with some satisfaction that I can see most millennials did notice (though there are a surprising number of Youtube comments insisting that there is nothing wrong with the ad).  And that may be the most significant thing of all.


About the Author
Jack Solomon is Professor Emeritus of English at California State University, Northridge, where he taught literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics, and directed the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with the late Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.