TV Ad Director: Pepsi, Kendall Jenner and Why Political Relevance Is So Difficult (Guest Column)

Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, and inset of Bryan Buckley - Screen Shot- Getty -H 2017
Courtesy of Pepsi/YouTube; Jim Spellman/WireImage

Following outrage over the infamous soda commercial, seasoned Super Bowl spot helmer Buckley stresses the importance of brand authenticity.

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.

It’s also a timing thing. Like the Bud spot at the Super Bowl — last year, that would’ve been like, “OK, another immigration spot,” but this year, with everything going on, it suddenly became a hot spot and it happened to hit. But now the landscape changes so quickly — it can shift completely within 24 hours with just one event. It’s uncharted territory. And in the case of commercials, I’m telling you, the lead time now is like a week: “Let’s go make this. Get it ready to go. We’re gonna shoot it next week.” Because no one wants to do stuff three months out in case something happens. It’s so crazy and I’ve never seen anything like it.

I’ve also been there where stuff gets crazy — especially Super Bowl stuff — where the intention is all there and the spot gets finished and we gotta get it out there. I once had chimps driving cars with a Nebraska license plate, and people thought I was making some statement about how Nebraska drivers are. No! People have lost their minds and have nothing better to talk about.

That’s also the problem right now — so many people get on YouTube and start slamming stuff. It gets really hard, no matter what ad you do. Everything kicks something off. But you have to have enough balls to push stuff through.

There’s gonna be another Jenner spot. These bombs just happen now and again. That’s just the way it is.

However, one good thing with advertisers right now is diversity is being embraced across the board. It wasn’t always like that. The opportunity for work in commercials has never been better for diversity, for those who have had limited opportunities.

That’s great for brands. Companies, you‘ve got to be very honest about your work and your brand. If you’re gonna say you’re a culturally relevant brand, then you must in turn live up to that internally and externally. You need to go that extra distance to be that. You need to research and make sure that your people and your personnel reflect that. Because there’s no way that would’ve gotten through.