By now we’ve all seen Pepsi’s new (and now pulled) ad starring Kendall Jenner. The commercial follows the growth of a social protest via the perspectives of various artists, including a cellist and a photographer. Jenner is at the center of the plot, playing a fashion model who “bravely” removes her blonde wig and wipes off her makeup during a photoshoot to join the protest. Jenner joins the crowd, fist-bumping and hugging other protesters, while noticing police officers “controlling” the parameters of the protest. The commercial then focuses on Jenner handing a can of Pepsi to a cop, the cop taking a sip of the Pepsi, the crowd igniting in applauses and cheers, and a smiling Kendall returning to the crowd while raising her fist in the air.
What are some of the ways in which we can deconstruct so many of the wrongs in this ad?….
Society continues to capitalize on and profit from Black suffering
One of the largest issues regarding the ad is the appropriation of marginalized activism. The commercial clearly trivialized the Black Lives Movement. The commercial attempted to make the powerful counterstory of the realities of police violence and systemic racism into a more “consumable” narrative (Delgado, 1989). The ad made light of the current political environment and the very real threats of police violence against Black people. Practically every aspect of the ad attempted to portray the protest as joyful and fun. For example, the signs held by protestors all displayed generic messages like “Peace” and “Join the Conversation.” Additionally, the protest itself was a party, with participants smiling, laughing, and hugging each other. Lastly, and most problematic, was the stark difference in the way in which police were portrayed in the commercial in comparison to the some of the real BLM protests. One of the most widely made comparisons by media was the commercial’s resemblance to the award-winning image of Ieshia Evans from a Baton Rouge, Louisiana protest. The police in the commercial lacked any sort of visible weapons or protective gear. In fact, the only visible objects on their persons were hats, utility belts, and radios. This is stark contrast to the photo of Ieshia Evans below offering her hands to be arrested to a group of police officers in full riot gear.
One of the biggest take-aways of the commercial is that society has and will continue to capitalize and profit off Black suffering. Pepsi used the murders of so many Black people at the hands of police officers and a social activist movement created to address violence and systemic racism toward Black people to sell soda.
Even the music, “Lions” by Skip Marley, was an insult to the current political climate being that Bob Marley, Skip’s grandfather, was a countercultural icon against capitalism and commercialization of his *genius*. He often spoke to Black suffering conditioned by white supremacy, imperialism, capitalism, and patriarchy through his music.
The ad not only commercialized the pain and suffering of black and brown people, but completely erased their efforts by portraying Jenner as the peace-maker and white savior….which leads me to the next take away point
One of the most problematic aspects of the ad was the hiring of a rich white super model, from a rich and famous family no less, as the face of a campaign “promoting” activism. Not that being rich and/or white are in themselves oppositional to activism, but the fact that Pepsi thought it a good idea to hire Kendall Jenner is concerning.
As Crenshaw (1989) points out, our unwillingness to meaningfully engage in the ways race, class, sexual orientation impact gender inequality for women of color was beyond obvious in this ad.
Here are the ironies in all this.
One of the other two “main” characters was a woman in a hijab. Her role in the ad was capturing the event behind the lens of a camera. Jenner is hired as the savior when Muslim women, like Linda Sarsaour, helped drive the historic (although also problematic) Women’s March in DC.
In her “act of heroism”, Jenner wipes off her make-up, removes her blonde wig, and throws it at the stylist, a Black woman. The ironies of paying a rich white woman to be the heroine, and casting a black woman as her assistant when Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded the rallying cry/movement of this generation and the movement the commercial appropriates.
Liberal complacency in doing the bare-minimum but needing to be praised for their allyship
The ad also speaks to liberal white complacency in struggles for racial equality (Crenshaw 1988; Gotanda 1993). As Jenner joins the crowds of protesters and after she delivers the almighty can of Pepsi to the police officer, the ad highlights her interactions with people of color. The camera zooms in on Black people giving Jenner fist bumps and clapping in applause of her “allyship.” This speaks to the new form of white “allyship” where white “activists” literally do the bare minimum yet receive praise for it. While people of color have always and continue to put their lives on the line, white privilege gives white people doing the bare minimum for a movement the power to speak over POC on a movement that’s not even for them.
Crenshaw, K. W. (1988). Race, reform, and retrenchment: Transformation and legitimation in antidiscrimination law. Harvard Law Review, 1331-1387.
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. U. Chi. Legal F., 139.
Delgado, R. (1989). Storytelling for oppositionists and others: A plea for narrative. Michigan Law Review, 87(8), 2411-2441.
Gotanda, N. (1991). A Critique of” Our Constitution is Color-Blind”. Stanford Law Review, 1-68.