In the realm of advertising, a single misstep can have far-reaching consequences.

The Pepsi crisis of 2017 stands as a striking example of how a well-intentioned campaign can quickly unravel, causing widespread controversy and public backlash. 

The advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner, which aimed to promote unity and understanding, instead ignited a firestorm of criticism, accused of trivializing serious social justice movements and appropriating the struggles of marginalized communities. 

Pepsi Crisis Management Case Study 2017 explains events surrounding the Pepsi crisis, exploring the nature of the controversy, the criticisms it faced, and the valuable lessons learned in the aftermath.

It serves as a reminder that advertising has the power to shape public perception and should be approached with careful consideration and cultural sensitivity.

Let’s start reading

Description of the controversial advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner

The controversial advertisement that embroiled Pepsi in the 2017 crisis featured the prominent model and television personality, Kendall Jenner.

In the ad, Jenner was depicted in the midst of a lively protest, reminiscent of social justice movements that have fought for equality and justice throughout history.

As tensions escalated between protesters and a line of stoic police officers, Jenner made a seemingly symbolic gesture of unity by offering a can of Pepsi to one of the officers.

The ad aimed to convey a message of harmony, suggesting that a simple act of sharing a soda could bridge societal divides and promote understanding.

However, the execution of this concept quickly became a subject of intense scrutiny and controversy.

The intended message of unity and understanding

The intended message of the controversial Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner was to portray a vision of unity and understanding in the face of social unrest.

Pepsi sought to tap into the energy and spirit of social justice movements that had gained significant attention and momentum at the time.

The ad aimed to convey the idea that by coming together and engaging in dialogue, even the most contentious issues could be resolved or at least eased.

The central theme of the advertisement was the power of a shared experience, symbolized by the act of offering a can of Pepsi.

It suggested that such a simple gesture could transcend differences and create a connection between people, regardless of their backgrounds or beliefs.

The ad sought to depict a world where understanding and harmony could be achieved through open dialogue and peaceful engagement.

Pepsi likely intended to position their brand as a catalyst for positive change and a unifying force in society.

By associating their product with notions of unity, the company aimed to align itself with the values and aspirations of socially conscious consumers.

However, the execution of this message ultimately fell short, leading to unintended consequences and backlash.

Initial public reaction and backlash

The initial public reaction to the controversial Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner was overwhelmingly negative, leading to a swift and intense backlash. Almost immediately after its release, the ad faced widespread criticism for its perceived insensitivity and trivialization of serious social justice movements.

Viewers and social media users were quick to point out that the ad seemed to appropriate the struggles and activism of marginalized communities, particularly the Black Lives Matter movement.

Many felt that the commercial trivialized the real-life issues at hand by suggesting that a can of soda could solve deep-rooted societal problems.

The public outcry was amplified through social media platforms, where users expressed their outrage and disappointment.

Hashtags such as #PepsiAd and #PepsiFail quickly trended, with individuals sharing their criticisms and mocking the advertisement.

Activist groups, including those associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, issued statements condemning the ad for its lack of awareness and respect.

The backlash against the ad was not confined to online spaces. Various media outlets and opinion leaders also criticized Pepsi for its misjudgment and failure to understand the complexities of social justice movements.

The incident sparked discussions about the role of advertising in addressing important social issues and the responsibility of brands to be culturally sensitive.

Criticisms and backlash

One of the primary criticisms leveled against the controversial Pepsi ad was that it trivialized serious social justice movements. Viewers and critics argued that the commercial seemed to diminish the significance and complexity of the issues being protested, particularly those related to racial inequality and police brutality.

The ad’s portrayal of a protest as a festive and celebratory gathering, with simplified slogans and a seemingly inconsequential conflict, drew strong backlash.

Activists and advocates felt that it oversimplified the struggles and sacrifices of those involved in real-life social justice movements, who often face significant adversity and risk.

By reducing the complexities of social justice issues to a simple exchange of a Pepsi can, the ad was seen as minimizing the urgency and gravity of the problems being protested.

This perceived trivialization struck a chord with viewers who felt that it undermined the genuine grievances and lived experiences of marginalized communities.

The backlash highlighted the importance of treating social justice movements with respect and sensitivity.

Appropriation of the Black Lives Matter movement

Another significant criticism aimed at the controversial Pepsi ad was the appropriation of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.

Many viewers felt that Pepsi’s depiction of a glamorous, predominantly white celebrity resolving tensions with a can of soda was an insensitive and misguided attempt to co-opt the struggles and activism of Black communities.

The ad appeared to dilute the significance of the BLM movement by presenting a simplified and sanitized version of protest dynamics.

The appropriation of the BLM movement within the ad not only undermined the specific cause but also sparked broader discussions about the commodification of activism and the ethical implications of using social justice movements as marketing tools.

The backlash against the appropriation of the BLM movement demonstrated the importance of recognizing and respecting the unique struggles faced by marginalized communities. It served as a reminder that social justice movements should be approached with humility, empathy, and a commitment to amplifying the voices of those directly affected, rather than appropriating their experiences for commercial purposes.

Outrage on social media platforms

The controversial Pepsi ad of 2017 sparked an intense and widespread outrage on various social media platforms. Almost immediately after its release, the ad became a trending topic as users took to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to express their dissatisfaction and condemnation.

Hashtags such as #PepsiAd, #PepsiFail, and #BoycottPepsi began circulating rapidly, amplifying the public’s discontent and fueling the online conversation.

Users shared their criticisms, memes, and parodies, mocking the ad’s perceived insensitivity and lack of awareness. The ad quickly became a subject of ridicule and a target of satire across social media channels.

Social media users, including activists, celebrities, and everyday individuals, expressed their disappointment at how the ad trivialized important social justice issues and appropriated the struggles of marginalized communities.

The ad’s message of unity and understanding was widely perceived as tone-deaf and out of touch with the realities faced by those involved in real-life activism.

The rapid and extensive nature of the outrage on social media platforms showcased the power of these digital spaces in shaping public perception and holding brands accountable.

Activist groups’ responses

Activist groups played a pivotal role in responding to the controversial Pepsi ad of 2017. Many organizations and advocates who were actively involved in social justice movements, including the Black Lives Matter movement, issued statements and responses expressing their concerns and criticisms.

These activist groups were particularly vocal in highlighting the ad’s shortcomings, such as its trivialization of serious issues and its appropriation of marginalized communities’ struggles. They condemned Pepsi for capitalizing on the pain and activism of marginalized groups for commercial gain, without genuinely understanding or addressing the underlying systemic problems.

Various organizations released official statements that called out Pepsi’s missteps and urged the company to take responsibility for the impact of its advertisement. Some groups organized boycotts or called for consumers to reconsider their support for the brand until genuine efforts were made to rectify the situation.

They used their platforms to educate the public, engage in discussions, and highlight the importance of authentic activism that centers marginalized voices.

Swift response and damage control

In response to the overwhelming backlash and public outcry, Pepsi made the swift decision to pull the controversial ad from all platforms. Recognizing the magnitude of the negative response and the criticism it generated, the company acknowledged that the advertisement missed the mark and issued an apology.

Pepsi acknowledged the concerns raised by the public, activists, and advocacy groups, and expressed regret for any offense caused by the ad. The decision to remove the advertisement demonstrated a willingness to listen to the feedback and take responsibility for the misjudgment.

By promptly pulling the ad, Pepsi aimed to mitigate further damage to its brand reputation and to signal a commitment to learning from the incident. The move was an attempt to demonstrate that the company understood the gravity of the situation and was taking steps to rectify the misstep.

Pepsi’s decision to retract the ad was an essential part of the damage control strategy employed in response to the crisis. It was an acknowledgment that the content of the advertisement did not align with the values and aspirations of the company and that immediate action was necessary to address the public’s concerns.

However, while pulling the ad was an important initial step, it marked the beginning of a longer process for Pepsi to rebuild trust and repair its relationship with consumers and the wider public.

Issuing a public apology

In addition to pulling the controversial ad, Pepsi recognized the need to issue a public apology to address the concerns and criticisms that had been raised. The company understood the importance of taking responsibility for the misstep and expressing genuine remorse for any offense caused.

In its public apology, Pepsi expressed regret for the insensitivity and lack of awareness demonstrated in the ad. The company acknowledged that the commercial did not appropriately convey the seriousness of the social justice issues it attempted to address, and that it failed to respect the struggles faced by marginalized communities.

The apology emphasized Pepsi’s commitment to learning from the incident and improving its processes to prevent similar missteps in the future. It also acknowledged the importance of listening to feedback, engaging in meaningful dialogue, and taking a more thoughtful approach when addressing sensitive social issues.

By issuing a public apology, Pepsi aimed to demonstrate accountability and a willingness to make amends. The company recognized that an apology was an essential step in the process of rebuilding trust with consumers and repairing its damaged reputation.

However, it is worth noting that while a public apology is a crucial initial response, its effectiveness ultimately depends on the sincerity and actions that follow. Pepsi’s subsequent actions and efforts to rectify the situation were equally significant in the broader process of damage control and reputation management.

Acknowledging the missed mark and cultural insensitivity

In its response to the backlash, Pepsi acknowledged the gravity of its misjudgment and recognized the extent of the cultural insensitivity displayed in the ad. The company publicly admitted that the advertisement missed the mark in understanding and addressing the complex social issues it sought to represent.

Pepsi acknowledged that the ad’s portrayal of social justice movements and its appropriation of marginalized communities’ struggles were misguided and lacked the necessary sensitivity. The company recognized that it had failed to grasp the depth of the issues at hand and had inadvertently trivialized the experiences and activism of those affected.

By acknowledging the missed mark and cultural insensitivity, Pepsi aimed to demonstrate a genuine commitment to self-reflection and improvement. The company recognized the need to critically assess its internal processes, including its creative development and approval mechanisms, to prevent similar missteps in the future.

This acknowledgement was an essential step in the process of rebuilding trust and credibility with its audience. It conveyed an understanding of the responsibility brands have when engaging with social issues and the importance of approaching them with cultural sensitivity, respect, and a deep understanding of the context.

Pepsi’s acknowledgment of the missed mark and cultural insensitivity signaled a willingness to learn from the incident and make the necessary changes to ensure that its future campaigns would be more informed, inclusive, and representative.

Lessons Learned 

Following are the powerful lessons learned from Pepsi Crisis Management Case Study 2017:

The power of social media in shaping public opinion

The Pepsi crisis of 2017 highlighted the immense power of social media in shaping public opinion and driving the narrative surrounding a brand. The swift and widespread backlash that unfolded on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram demonstrated how social media can amplify public outrage and hold companies accountable for their actions.

The incident showcased the speed and reach with which information spreads on social media, allowing public sentiment to quickly turn against a brand. Users utilized hashtags, memes, and parodies to express their criticisms and share their perspectives, effectively influencing the broader discourse around the ad.

The viral nature of the public outcry emphasized the importance for brands to actively monitor and engage with social media conversations. Ignoring or dismissing the concerns expressed on these platforms can exacerbate the crisis and further damage a company’s reputation.

Importance of cultural sensitivity and understanding

The Pepsi crisis of 2017 underscored the importance of cultural sensitivity and understanding when addressing social issues in advertising campaigns. The backlash against the ad revealed the negative consequences of failing to grasp the historical, social, and cultural contexts surrounding sensitive topics.

The incident demonstrated that genuine cultural sensitivity goes beyond surface-level diversity and requires a deeper understanding of the lived experiences, struggles, and aspirations of the communities being represented or affected. It is not enough to simply co-opt or commodify cultural symbols or movements; brands must actively engage in meaningful dialogue, listen to marginalized voices, and work in collaboration with affected communities.

Furthermore, the Pepsi crisis emphasized that cultural sensitivity is an ongoing commitment, not a one-time checkbox. Brands need to continually educate themselves, adapt their strategies, and incorporate diverse perspectives throughout their creative processes.

Need for thorough research and diverse perspectives in advertising

The Pepsi crisis of 2017 highlighted the critical need for thorough research and diverse perspectives in the development of advertising campaigns. The backlash against the ad demonstrated the negative consequences of a failure to deeply understand the issues at hand and consider the perspectives of diverse communities.

The incident served as a reminder that brands must invest in comprehensive research to gain a nuanced understanding of the social, cultural, and historical contexts surrounding the topics they seek to address. This research should include engaging with experts, consulting with affected communities, and conducting thorough market analysis to ensure the messaging resonates authentically with the target audience.

Moreover, incorporating diverse perspectives throughout the creative process is essential. Brands should assemble diverse teams that can bring a range of experiences and viewpoints to the table. This diversity helps to identify potential pitfalls, challenge assumptions, and ensure that campaigns are inclusive and respectful.

Considering historical and social contexts in marketing campaigns

The Pepsi crisis of 2017 emphasized the critical importance of considering historical and social contexts when crafting marketing campaigns. The backlash against the ad revealed the consequences of overlooking or trivializing the historical and social significance of the issues being addressed.

Marketing campaigns should not exist in a vacuum; they are influenced by the broader historical and social landscape in which they are released. Brands must be acutely aware of the historical context surrounding the topics they seek to engage with. This includes understanding the struggles, achievements, and ongoing challenges faced by marginalized communities and social justice movements.

By considering historical context, brands can avoid inadvertently diminishing or appropriating the experiences and activism of these communities. They can ensure that their messaging aligns with the values and aspirations of the target audience while respecting the progress and ongoing work of social justice movements.

Impact on Pepsi’s brand image

The Pepsi crisis of 2017 had a significant impact on the brand image of Pepsi. The controversy surrounding the ad and the subsequent backlash resulted in substantial reputational damage for the company.

The incident brought negative attention to Pepsi, with widespread media coverage and discussions across various platforms. The negative sentiment and criticism associated with the ad overshadowed the brand’s previous marketing efforts and achievements, tarnishing its reputation in the eyes of many consumers.

Pepsi’s brand image, previously associated with youth, vibrancy, and positivity, took a hit as the company was widely criticized for its misjudgment and lack of understanding. The incident served as a cautionary tale for other brands, demonstrating the potential consequences of overlooking cultural sensitivity and failing to engage with diverse perspectives.

Rebuilding the brand image after such a crisis required significant effort and a long-term strategy. Pepsi needed to take proactive steps to demonstrate accountability, cultural sensitivity, and genuine commitment to social responsibility. This included sincere apologies, dialogue with affected communities, and concrete actions to rectify the missteps.

Final Words 

The Pepsi crisis of 2017 serves as a powerful reminder of the potential pitfalls that brands may encounter when engaging with sensitive social issues. It underscores the importance of cultural sensitivity, understanding historical and social contexts, and actively listening to diverse perspectives. The incident also highlights the significant impact that social media and public opinion can have on a brand’s reputation.

The lessons learned from the Pepsi crisis are not limited to one brand or one incident. They apply to any organization seeking to navigate the complex landscape of marketing and social responsibility. Brands must remain vigilant, adaptable, and responsive to evolving societal expectations. By continuously learning from mistakes, implementing changes, and demonstrating a genuine commitment to positive impact, brands can foster long-term trust and make a meaningful difference in the world.