By Irene Monroe

Pepsi ads aim to emphasize its youthful brand by championing it as “the choice of a new generation.” Not a bad marketing tool to turn its second-class status to Coca-Cola, its archrival, into an advantage.

However, Pepsi’s recent commercial starring Kendall Jenner (of the Kardashian clan) was a fiasco. And, the backlash was fast and furious, because it preyed on racial and ethnic stereotypes: Asian as a classical musician; Muslim woman wearing a hijab; black males as reggae and hip-hop artists; white riot gear police holding fort against a multi-ethnic crowd.   And, of course, the reenactment of the white hero/ rescuer trope.

Jenner thwarts a possible riot by simply offering a cop a Pepsi. However, before the denouement Jenner removes her blonde wig to give to a black woman because natural hair – any Eurocentric fashion- conscious female knows- won’t do.

 Front and center of the commercial’s narrative arch is the misappropriation of the iconic and viral photo of Ieshia Evans, (left). Evans is the 28-year-old African American mother who in 2016 during a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge stunned the nation as well as the world when she silently walked to the front line of heavily-armed police and offered her hands to be arrested. 

The ad was not only tone deaf in culturally appropriating the Black Lives Matter struggle, but it was also an ill-conceived ambitious project overreaching to tap into a multicultural new market- Millennials.

 Of all previous generations, however, Millennials are the most health-conscious customers, and non-alcoholic carbonated drinks -like both Coke and Pepsi – well, they are just not that into them. Connexity, a consumer analytics provider revealed as recent as December 2016 that Millennials, between the ages of 18-24, consume mostly natural drinks.

However, both cola conglomerates gear their ad commercials mainly to the children of their most loyal fan base – African Americans and Latino Americans.

Pepsi and Coke have a long history with its African American community. Pepsi, however, has nearly a century-old loyal fan base because Coke- once referred to as the ‘Jim Crow drink” -would not sell to African American markets. Pepsi- derisively referred to as the “N-word drink” -exploited the opportunity, narrowing its competition with Coke by opening markets in the Southern black belt and the Northern inner cities and hiring an all-black sales team. Pepsi ads flooded stores patronized by us and in African American publications with black models and celebrities. And Pepsi is still doing that. As recent as 2013, Beyoncé and Christiana Aguilar were hired to promote domestic sales in black and Latino markets, respectively.

Despite public outcry, many multicultural marketers at soft-drink industries applauded Pepsi with their recent ad for recognizing the expanding face of its consumer base and for aiming to employ “guerrilla advertising” and “rebel marketing” at disaffected Millennials, especially in urban cities.

With pushback from healthcare professionals, activists and environmentalists about marketing these drinks, like Pepsi, to economically distressed areas where fast-food chains also disproportionately target African American and Latino populations, especially our children, the plea has fallen on deaf ears.

“But let’s face it. Hispanics and African Americans are much less interested in diet products. Sugary drinks — often the sweeter the better — do well with them,” Todd Putman, a white professional multicultural marketer, quoted in the Advertising Age article “Soft-Drink Industry Is Smart to Target Hispanics and Blacks.” There are a lot of cultural barriers to getting both these groups to understand the importance of being lean.”

There are a lot of cultural and socioeconomic barriers and the inundation of these ads are one of them.

For example, with both former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg of NYC and former First Lady Michelle Obama campaigns against unhealthy sugary drinks to combat childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes, Coke and Pepsi, notwithstanding, are the beverages of choice among both groups, exceeding water.  During black and Latino prime time TV shows, especially on networks like Black Entertainment Television (BET) and the American Spanish-language Telemundo, Coke and Pepsi ads run disproportionally higher than on general prime TV show-  13 percent of their ads on those networks compared to 2 percent on the others.

With African Americans and Latinos markets viewed as providing soft drink companies a “lifetime of opportunity” these companies are disincentivized to create healthier beverages.  And they don’t see it as exploitation, but rather as niche marketing.

“Do they owe these groups an apology? I don’t think so…. On many levels, the soft-drink industry is being demonized as if it were the new big tobacco.”

Pepsi is lauded as a friend to African American and Latinos communities. As a corporate philanthropist, Pepsi gives generously to African American and Latinos causes and organizations.  In 2015, Pepsi celebrated its 50th Anniversary Giving Back program.  One of its big grant recipients was Big Brothers Big Sister of Metropolitan Chicago, an at-risk youth program that aims to improve their changes at the American Dream.

But how could their chances be improved upon drinking their product?

Pepsi has a high concentration of sugar and caffeine. Both are addictive ingredients keeping our children coming back for more. Their ads are, too.

Rev. Irene Monroe lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was educated at Harvard Divinity School and Wellesley College. She is a regular blogger for Huffington Post and is a frequent contributor to Houston Rainbow Herald. Reach her at [email protected]

 Published in the Houston Rainbow Herald, April 18, 2017.