How Did Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Train Wreck Ad Happen?

Autopsy of the Worst Ad in Recent Memory

Pepsi Kendall Jenner
Pepsi Kendall Jenner. YouTube

Pepsi’s marketing team must be breathing a heavy sign of relief right now, with the more recent United Airlines debacle taking the heat away from their latest ad. But, make no mistake. The multimillion dollar TV spot produced by Pepsi’s in-house team Creators League Studio. Let’s face it, when SNL covers your PR disaster, you know you screwed up.

When the ad was launched online, the backlash was immediate and damning.

The phrase “tone deaf” could be heard around the nation, and commenters could not wait to destroy all those involved in its creation. It is reported that Kendall Jenner received $4 million just to appear in the ad. The actual costs to make such a piece of television way exceed that fee. So the question has to be asked…how did this happen? How could such an obvious (to most of us) piece of blatant pandering, that trivializes so much and applauds consumerism, make it to the air? Let’s take a look.

It Takes a Village to Raise an Abomination

First, it’s unfair to simply blame the in-house team for this. An in-house team does not have unlimited power with the corporation; quite the contrary. In most cases, in-house teams are much easier to manipulate and push around. Individuals can be afraid to speak up for fear of being fired, and the opinions of external ad agencies are usually much more highly-regarded than those who work in the building.

No, this goes beyond the creative department. First, there’s the brief. This ad did not come out of a vacuum. Someone, somewhere, threw out the strategy (if you can call it that) of Pepsi being a great uniter; a product that can bring vastly divided lines together in peace and harmony. No doubt the famous “I’d Like To Buy The World a Coke” ad came into play, too.

This was Pepsi attempting to recreate that for the modern era, and failing spectacularly. And, of course, events happening around the world, and pop culture, had a part to play.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that this idea came directly from the staff of Creators League Studio, without prompt or provocation. If it did…they all need to have a serious wake-up call about the current state of the world, and the place Pepsi and advertising play in it.

The team responsible would have to pitch this idea to many people. There is a chain of command in any organization, and Pepsi is no exception. This would have to go through rounds of approvals, script revisions, and production meetings. You don’t spend millions of dollars on something this big without sign-off from some of the top people at Pepsi. At the time of writing this (a lot can change in advertising in a week), that would have to include outspoken global executive Brad Jakeman, and freshly-hired CMO Greg Lyons, who was brought on board in February. Talk about stumbling out of the gate.

An ad like this can take months to develop, so it’s quite possible Lyons came into the production of the ad when the gears were already in motion.

However, that’s certainly no excuse. One look at the initial write up, the storyboards, the use of Jenner, or the inclusion of a Black Lives Matter style of protest should have triggered huge red flags at first glance. Any CMO worth his or her salt would have stopped this in its tracks. Mr. Lyons did not, which speaks volumes about his judgment, the management structure at Pepsi, and the role of the CMO.

The Aftermath Was Handled Just as Poorly

After the ad aired, and the torrent of consumer vitriol poured in, there was another chance to control the narrative. Pepsi could have stepped up and said “wow…we totally missed the mark here. We are so sorry. The ad has been pulled, and we are looking into our internal procedures to see how this happened.” But, that’s not what happened at all. Pepsi defended the ad for a while, before silently pulling it and praying the parodies would stop.

They did not.

The very idea that a super-rich young woman, with no clue about the problems most of us encounter daily, could solve problems with a Pepsi is beyond ludicrous. And the Internet responded in kind. Even Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., had to say something on Twitter: “If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.”

This was a train wreck for Pepsi. How it happened was down to several factors, including group think, sheltered lives (how many top execs at Pepsi know of the struggles of working-class Americans?), self-congratulatory meetings, a lack of perspective, a corporate culture that cannot see the forest for the trees, and fear. Yes, fear of speaking up, because there were absolutely people along the way that knew how bad this was. They just didn’t dare tell the Emperor he was not wearing any clothes.

No doubt Pepsi will recover (again…thank you United from Brad Jakeman and Greg Lyons), but it will still go down as one of the worst ads ever made. The PR from it was horrendous, Pepsi shares dropped in value, and millions of dollars were wasted.

Consider your next move very, very carefully Pepsi. The world is watching.