Storytelling lessons from the Pepsi ad case

A week after the launch of the Pepsi ad that has inflamed the Internet, the dust is starting to settle. And it becomes clearer why so many people found that ill-advised video so offensive.

It’s definitely unusual to concentrate such a long list of blunders in one single commercial. From a storytelling point of view, it might be useful to take the most troubling ones into consideration. The exercise could be beneficial to the Pepsi brand (learning from one’s mistakes is the first step towards redemption) and to all the other companies mulling to address the Internet-savvy, culturally aware Millennial generation.

The curious thing is that, in its basic inspiration, the story plot was not bad at all: as Eric Thomas pointed out in his smart and scathing commentary of the ad, “The narrative of a young person being compelled into action by the passion of her peers and empathy for the challenges experienced by others could have been amazing” (How to Make Millennials Hate You, the Pepsi Way).

But the way the video was done is actually terrible. To the point that, as now everyone knows, after a few days of overwhelmingly negative comments on the web, Pepsi decided to pull the ad (despite the multimillion-dollar investment to make it) and apologized. Here’s an inventory of what went wrong and should have been handled differently.

Protests and civil unrest cannot be treated lightly.

Pepsi was right to consider that Millennials are often deeply involved in the issues they care about. But the recent season of protests in the US has been tense, sometimes dramatic, and those events cannot be evoked in a vapid, trivial way. Hinting at serious challenges and struggles with substantial disrespect can easily backfire.

Minorities are not there to be exploited by brands.

It can be said that the video tried to positively portray diversity, and is full of references to all kind of minorities asserting their rights. However, most of them are depicted stereotypically, revealing a very shallow understanding of who they are and what they fight for. Indeed, the light-hearted tone of the whole commercial makes those minorities look fundamentally weird.

Millennials expect brand stories to be honest and culturally sensitive

The tale of a mega-model turning activist and becoming the leader of an uprising in 30 seconds is too far-fetched to appear honest. And the increasing sense of cultural and social divide that has so many people worried today cannot be allayed by a futile appeal to unity.

Testimonials should never be totally disconnected from the context they are put in.

The top model at the centre of the commercial, Kendall Jenner, is a young representative of the Kardashian family, who has been criticised by many for its talent in cultural appropriation, show-off lifestyle and indifference to the big causes of our time. The girl is innocent. But she’s not exactly the most consistent choice for a street protest video.

The relationship between characters needs to be controlled and avoid faux pas.

The narrative is puzzling even in its details. Among the frames that strike a discordant note: a) when Kendall takes off her blond wig, she throws it on a black woman who is clearly put in an ancillary role; b) despite supposedly becoming an instant champion of self-awareness, the girl does not act before getting an approval nod by a cute guy; c) the possibly violent situation is solved by the appeasement of the police force, whose chief Kendall soothes by graciously handing him a Pepsi. (Don’t try this in your next street protest).

Any Hero must be credible

Both the general plot and the details of the video, plus all what Kendall is known for, make her particularly unfit as Hero of this story. As with any narrative, if you don’t feel the protagonist is credible the whole thing becomes fishy too.

The product’s role must make sense.

The commercial tells the story of a potential mass conflict avoided thanks to the gift of a Pepsi. How plausible is this conclusion? What product features make the gift so valuable? The multitude of people who criticised the ad indicate they didn’t see any meaningful role for the drink, and they are right. Old-style advertising hyperboles on what products represent are not able to gain the passive acceptance of a sophisticated and demanding young generation anymore.

After all this commotion, Pepsi should think hard about how the brand and its products want to be perceived and what they can really offer their audience. A hint: the many don’ts that have been listed here could be translated into dos by just going in the opposite direction.

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