Why Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi Advert Deserves The Backlash

kendall jenner in pepsi advert

by Katie Rosseinsky |

One of the most powerful images of 2016 was taken in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at a protest following the death of Alton Sterling, an African-American man who was pulled over in his car then shot by two (white) police officers. It shows 28-year-old Leisha Evans, standing poised and defiant as she faces down a line of armed riot police, peacefully protesting for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Refusing to move, she was later arrested and spent 24 hours in jail for ‘obstructing traffic.’ Many of her fellow protesters were treated roughly by police, held on the ground or subdued with pepper spray.

It’s a photo that will probably be in history books one day, but, if we follow the logic of Kendall Jenner’s new Pepsi advert, it’s one that could be vastly improved with the addition of a brown fizzy drink. The one that's best known for not quite being Coke. Confused? Watch the advert – though that probably won’t help you either.

As protests and activism have become more visible online, big businesses (from fashion labels newly minted as feminists to brands trolling Donald Trump) have – for better and for worse - jumped at the chance to be perceived as a little bit more ‘woke.’ In Pepsi’s case, that means a new two-and-a-half minute clip following Kendall Jenner as she walks out of a photo shoot to join a protest. The model shakes off a blonde wig (blonde = so not counter-cultural, am I right?) and smears off her lipstick to stand alongside activists of all ethnicities, holding signs preaching non-specific peace, love and understanding.

So far, so cynical – but it’s the ad’s final moments that have (rightly) sparked criticism online. After joining the protest, Kendall grabs a chilled can of Pepsi from a conveniently placed basket, then heads over to a line of police. Until this point, they’ve have been lurking in the periphery rather than interacting with protesters. Choosing the officer who bears the most resemblance to Oscar Isaac (side note: this is the only point where Kendall acts in a relatable manner), she holds out the can like a sugary olive branch. After Kendall’s defiant gesture of peace-making, the crowd erupts with cheers. And thus, peace, harmony and fizzy drinks were brought to Trump’s America.

According to Pepsi, it’s ‘a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony,’ which, to the drinks manufacturer, is ‘an important message to convey.’ But while, yes, the ad is less homogenous in its casting than some, it’s not OK for Pepsi to assume that throwing in some non-white extras gives them a free pass to co-opt resistance movements for profit.

kendall jenner in pepsi advert
Kendall Jenner in Pepsi advert ©Pepsi Youtube

Taking imagery that can’t fail to recall movements like Black Lives Matter and turning it around to hawk fizzy drinks is, of course, spectacularly distasteful. Civil rights aren’t a cool branding idea for #empowering content: for many Americans, they’re a long and exhausting struggle.

twitter response to Kendall jenner's Pepsi advert
Twitter responses to Kendall Jenner's misjudged Pepsi advert ©Twitter
twitter response to Kendall jenner's Pepsi advert
Twitter responses to Kendall Jenner's misjudged Pepsi advert ©Twitter

Then there’s Kendall: white, rich and beautiful, she’s the epitome of privilege, and placing her in this peacemaker role, bridging the gap between protesters and police, can’t help but feel uncomfortable. Throw in the fact that Kendall and her sisters have repeatedly been called out for appropriating black culture, and this feeling doubles. Let’s not get started on the look of awe that appears on faces of the (non-white) activists at the ad’s close…

twitter response to Kendall jenner's Pepsi advert
Twitter responses to Kendall Jenner's misjudged Pepsi advert ©Twitter

One of the faux-protest signs at Kendall’s demo reads ‘join the conversation.’ If your only addition to said conversation, though, is to suggest that everyone can put aside their differences over a can of Pepsi, it’s probably best to keep quiet. Time to bring back the glory days of Britney and Beyoncé as Roman gladiators, guys?

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