Critic's Notebook: The Real Problem With Kendall Jenner's Pepsi Ad

The pulled commercial is the latest example of the white corporate world brazenly borrowing from black culture, and Jenner was precisely the wrong person to star in it.

The already infamous Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad was a blowout of youth and race exploitation gone wrong. The commercial, in which model Jenner plays a model who follows a model-cute musician into a protest modeled after Black Lives Matter, was taken down by the company within a day of its debut, followed by this apology: "Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize."

The company was likely aiming for something closer to the iconic 1971 ad "I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke," featuring an international chorus singing on an Italian hill, and recently introduced to younger viewers through prominent placement in the final episode of Mad Men. Now is the right time, as it was then, for a pop commercial to mark a generational shift (in both cases, about three years after a major political upheaval).

And the new Pepsi ad almost got there! Because of her family, particularly her older sister Kim Kardashian, Jenner would be the perfect person to signal, by removing a blond wig and too much makeup (as she does in the commercial), a new and more androgynous aesthetic; we see her magically change into two-tone stiff denim, totally in contrast to the bodycon dresses with plunging necklines that her sister became known for. But when Jenner takes off her wig in the ad, she cavalierly hands it to a perplexed black woman. And it just gets worse from there. Instead of celebrating the values of Generation Z, the commercial ends up symbolizing what has been characterized as the Kardashian/Jenner family’s somewhat vampiric relationship with black culture. (Most of Jenner's siblings, and her mother, have had well-publicized romantic relationships with black people, yet remain, for the most part, publicly apolitical. And sisters Kylie and Khloe have famously experimented with their looks in ways that appropriate or approximate typically black features and styles — thick lips, cornrows, etc.)

Where exactly did things go wrong here? Both the Pepsi commercial and the 1971 Coke ad were put together collaboratively. But per the Daily Mirror, the Pepsi ad was put together by an all-white team. The initial partnership that conceived the Coke ad was made up of a white man, Bill Backer, creative director on the Coca-Cola account for the McCann Erickson advertising agency, and Billy Davis, the black music director on this account from the agency. Backer came up with the international angle while in Ireland, on his way to meet Davis in London. When Backer presented the line, "I’d like to buy the world a Coke," Davis was less enthusiastic about the idea than Backer assumed he’d be.

"Billy, do you have a problem with this idea?" Backer asked, according to Coca-Cola’s history of the ad.

"Well, if I could do something for everybody in the world, it would not be to buy them a Coke," Davis responded.

"What would you do?" Backer asked.

"I'd buy everyone a home first and share with them in peace and love," said Davis.

And so the song began with those words. If not for Davis’ idealistic (and let’s face it, anticapitalist) words about free housing, peace, love and turtle doves, it’s unlikely Harvey Gabor would have come up with the concept of the international choir, like the “It’s a Small World” gang all grown up. (Incidentally, Disney’s "It’s a Small World" ride from 1962 was commissioned by Pepsi and the song was inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis. These corporate consciousness moments can be done well, or at least inoffensively. Pepsi also sponsored Beyonce’s controversial Superbowl Halftime show, in which she invoked the Black Panthers.)

The new Pepsi ad did not begin with any kind of black input, though. It also didn’t begin with a jingle. Instead it uses the previously released song "Lions" by Skip Marley (Bob Marley’s grandson), which has repeated lines about "a new generation" and "the movement." And that’s where the ad gets itself in trouble. It borrows, instead of collaborating and creating something new. Some of the same images of protesters used in the ad might have been acceptable if not for the chorus from "Lions" clearly indicating Black Lives Matter, which also called itself "the movement." Indeed, the generic protest ("Join the Conversation!" and "Love" are the messages on the picket signs) is clearly meant to be BLM, not the Women’s March (which has been imitated in fashion shows with less controversy). Has Kendall Jenner ever been to a BLM protest? Or did she donate money to that cause, as Beyonce did? As far as I know, Jenner has no connection with the movement except for earning money off it, for this ad.

By the end of the long commercial, when Jenner walks up to the line of police to hand one officer a Pepsi and single-handedly ends police brutality as the crowd cheers, it’s clear that this image is inspired by a photo of a specific black woman, Ieshia Evans, bravely standing up to police in riot gear at a BLM protest in Baton Rouge last July. The core of the ad is this image that is not just borrowed but stolen from Twitter, from memes, from IEvans, and from the lost lives of all those for whom BLM protesters were in the streets.

And so, in a way, Pepsi did inadvertently sum up the zeitgeist of America in the last few years: white media and corporations scrambling to steal from black creators on social networks (which benefit Silicon Valley corporations, not these creators). Phrases like "on fleek" and "yas" find their way into advertisements for plastic cups or Hillary Clinton while the originators of the phrases don’t see a cent. When will companies like these learn to employ black people in top positions, as McCann Erickson did when it hired Billy Davis away from a soul songwriting career, or collaborate with black artists to create something new, instead of repurposing or brazenly stealing from black culture? It is a new age, but one defined by accountability, authenticity and black authorship, not the use of black bodies for profit. We didn't need a sequel to Get Out so soon. 

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