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Pepsi’s now-infamous ad — starring Kendall Jenner as a model-turned-activist who gives a soda to a police officer to overcome the division between protestors and authorities — was pulled by the company within a day of its debut, after widespread backlash regarding the spot’s exploitation of multiple cultures depicted onscreen. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” said the company. “Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize.”
Bryan Buckley — the seasoned commercial director of 50-plus Super Bowl spots, as well as the Oscar-nominated short Asad and the upcoming film Dabka, starring Evan Peters and Barkhad Abdi, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival — shares his take on the snafu, and advises how brands can properly produce politically relevant ads.
I was on set when it came out. I didn’t look at it immediately, but then my son — who never talks to me about commercial stuff — was like, “Dad, be careful. Did you see the Pepsi spot? It’s a crazy time right now.” I watched it at home, and the next day, everybody on set was talking about it.
It was amazing — it pretty much offended everyone it was trying to praise. Even though its intent was to be positive and it wanted to say the right thing, it was just so misguided. You’re talking about a very heightened situation culturally, but there are certain things you’re ignoring. Like if you’re a global brand, the general rule of thumb is religion is taboo, pretty much no matter what your advertising. There’s always gonna be two opposing points of view. Having a young a Muslim woman removing her hijab can be seen as empowering in one country and offensive in another. Turn that same woman into a fashion photographer who’s just used her newfound freedom to shoot Kendall Jenner plugging Pepsi and you’ve just doubled down on pissing people off. Someone should have said something. It just didn’t make sense. You’re making the police seem like the bad guys — why? Because you’re trying to cleverly re-create a photo you saw from a Black Lives Matter demonstration? You’re gonna commercialize that?
I tried an It’s a 10 spot on the Super Bowl called “4 More Years of Awful Hair,” and it’s my personal example of a spot that was able to be politically relevant without going over and offending people because everything it was saying was basically true, so no one got pissed. It definitely straddled that line, but it didn’t cross it. If you’re true and authentic, you can’t really get into a whole lot of trouble. The minute you try to manipulate things based on a situation, you’re in the danger zone. Based on the degree of honesty in the work, the public will turn on you when they feel like you’re trying to take advantage of them to make it work for you commercially or financially. You’re gonna get your head handed to you.
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