By Steve Stajich
To more fully understand why so many people were negatively bumped by a new Pepsi commercial that seemed to suggest that current American social problems were solvable by simply providing a police officer with a can of soda, we might examine appropriation for just a moment. By the way, if you are reading this and you are a 40-plus white male currently wearing your baseball cap askew on your head because that’s what rappers or your kids do… straighten it out, dude.
Appropriation in the world of art has become a fixture. Think of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans or his making of large boxes for Brillo soap pads. Artists deliberately copy images to use them in their art, wanting and even hoping that viewers will recognize the borrowed image and bring their original associations with the image to the artist’s new context.
Some advertising geniuses apparently thought that their client Pepsi could “recontextualize” the look of social protests—most especially the “Black Lives Matter” movement—and that would appeal to younger consumers who have replaced sugary gunk in their beverage habits with juice or even boring water. They turned out to be wrong. Lightning-fast internet blowback caused the commercial to be pulled in a matter of days.
Not even the dimmest bulbs in advertising would venture forth with an ad campaign that somehow appropriated the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Dakota Access crude-oil pipeline protests with promotions for the Washington Redskins, the Atlanta Braves, the Chicago Blackhawks– let me stop there. But when you watch the now disappeared Pepsi commercial you can almost hear the wheels turning in the heads of the creative team. I’ll represent those thought bubbles in parentheses, below.
In the Pepsi commercial, the signs being carried by the “protestors” are all generic in language and intent (“So, we’re not exactly saying “Black Lives Matter” or “Occupy”, we’re just stealing their cool.”) One marcher (“He’s sort of ambiguously minority-looking…”) in what seems like a wave of unified protesters winks at model and reality star Kendall Jenner, giving her a look that suggests she should join the movement. So she walks away from her photo shoot (“See, she leaves the very hip world of narcissism and fashion to get ‘real’ on the streets… you know, with Pepsi!”) and presents one of the police officers monitoring the ‘protest’ with a can of syrup and sugar. (“Thirsty Lives Matter!”)
When the daughter of Martin Luther King weighed in on Twitter in response to the Pepsi spot, saying “If only Daddy had known about the power of Pepsi”, the banality of the commercial was as naked as the Emperor in his new clothes. Despite my fictional breakdown above, a larger question remains about the creators of the Pepsi spot: What the hell were they thinking?
When I was growing up, the rip-off of youth protest and culture by advertising and others was equally shameless. Hippies were recruited by the police to help bust drug dealers and other evil-doers in TV’s “The Mod Squad.” Coke had vibrant, hip looking young people singing on a mountain top about how the world “needed” Coke, because it was “the real thing.” A short-cut to appropriating the uniform and zeitgeist of youth revolt was found in the one-word title of the rock musical “Hair.” Revolution was in the air; cash was in the cash registers.
However the icky appropriation of the Pepsi ad seemed a bit more specific this time, and thus more wrong. The faces of color in the fake protest crowd unquestionably invoked the images of Black Lives Matter demonstrations, which were precipitated by deaths at the hands of police officers who may or may not drink Pepsi. Music under the Pepsi spot sang the line “We are the movement.” The image of Jenner approaching the cops clearly appeared to borrow—or steal—from a now well-known photograph of young woman approaching riot-geared officers at a Black Lives matter demonstration in Baton Rouge. That Pepsi never reached out to my generation with a commercial showing Rosa Parks giving a bus driver a can of soda is probably a small blessing.
I think it was psychologist B.F. Skinner who once noted that TV commercials were either about love or sex. Watch a few TV spots carefully and you’ll be surprised at how well that holds up. But a lot of advertising is meant to help us decide who we are. Are we modern and smart, fine vodka drinkers, people who drive not just a car but a “motorcar” that is “the best there is” ? Much of who we are in the current moment has to do with who we are not: Who we didn’t vote for, what we don’t consume because it’s not green, what we reject because it’s “fake.” Say what you will about the present political climate, the so-called “dog whistles” have been replaced by loudly honking horns. But that doesn’t mean that covert messaging won’t continue; it just needs to be better at being covert. After all, a lot of us are modern and smart and we can often smell what you’re up to.