Pepsi’s viral digital campaign goes flat
For any brand in the digital age, the dream is for a story, piece of content or advert to “go viral” – to the extent that it’s a well-worn joke among PRs that they’ll just “press the Go Viral” button in response to client demands
The trouble comes when going viral isn’t as a result of a piece of work being funny or clever or moving – it’s because it’s crass, misjudged or downright offensive.
This will be on the minds of executives at Pepsi, who this week saw the fizz go out of their high-budget “Live for Now” campaign quicker than it takes to crack open a ring pull.
At the conception stage it must have seemed like it had all the right ingredients a winner; a popular young reality star in Kendall Jenner, a “we’re all in this together” theme and a post-Trump emphasis on equality and diversity.
In execution it was a horror movie accused of everything from tokenism, making light of the Black Lives Matter campaign, cultural appropriation and the trivialisation of real life struggles, suggesting that sharing a can of Pepsi could solve all the world’s ills.
To its credit, PepsiCo rapidly responded to a huge backlash by climbing down, removing the advert within 24 hours of its appearance. Only PepsiCo bean-counters will know how much advertising, product placement, merchandise and social media planning also had to be poured down the drain with it.
Pepsi’s statement was brief and contrite: “Pepsi was trying to project a global a message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark, and we apologise. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologise for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
There have been those who suggest that “outrage marketing” can be a deliberate ploy by some brands to capture the outpouring on social media that inevitably occurs when a piece of bad-taste content appears. While that doesn’t appear to have been Pepsi’s aim, there is no doubt that other brands have benefited from the “all publicity is good publicity” approach, making their apology and climbdown while counting the number of clicks on the “share” button.
By all accounts, “Live for Now” was developed in-house at Pepsi, perhaps suggesting that its creators, swept up in the process, lacked the critical eye and sounding board that an external agency adds to the secret recipe.
Pepsi is not the first to jump on a cultural movement to try to capture consumers’ hearts. Arch-rival Coca-Cola’s memorable “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” advert was achieving that decades ago, harnessing the flower power movement to exploit a global message of harmony for commercial gain. But there is a fine line between capturing a mood and bandwagon jumping, and today’s political landscape is much more difficult to navigate, particularly when dealing with issues such as race and gender identity.
Pepsi is a strong enough brand to survive this, and the speed of its reaction will go a long way on the road to redemption. Other huge corporates will be watching with interest – and would do well to remember that even brands with a reputation for sweetness are just one mis-step away from leaving a sour taste if they don’t think their communications through.