You may have heard about a certain multimillion dollar television ad campaign for a carbonated beverage that was quickly pulled after quick and extensive online backlash. It stunningly revealed the dangers of using current events to sell products in today’s connected world.

As brands try to make more meaningful and emotional connections, more are wading into current and controversial issues. We saw plenty of sociopolitical co-opting by bold brands during the Super Bowl. SNL satirized it hilariously in a skit of competing ad pitches for Cheetos. For some reason, the Pepsi ad was different. The ad spawned a crowd-sourced outrage that ended in it being pulled in 24 hours in a form of social censorship.

I anticipate an extensive autopsy of how the ad came to be. Some are blaming the lack of perspective in the creative process by relying on in-house creative, while others see a desperate pepsi2attempt at relevancy for television advertising. I don’t think either are at the heart of the backlash. I have no doubt the intentions of the ad were good. The nondescript protests looked to be about equality and inclusion. The references to BLM came in the viewer analysis. I imagine no
one in the room thought of the photo from NOLA when storyboarding Kendall Jenner approaching the police line, nor did they think Dr. King’s daughter would post an image of her father mocking the ad.

The inclusion of a celebrity was their first mistake. It takes away from the authenticity of the message. I don’t know if she was the first choice. They may have been looking for a social media celebrity to draw attention and drive views. It also led to immediate criticism and discussion. Between April 3 and 5, there was a 21,000+% increase in social mentions of Pepsi. Great, right? Not when negative sentiment tripled to nearly 60%.

The ad had tremendous production value, but also some inexplicable instances that may be glossed over in viewing, but did not miss the analytical breakdown by journalists that cover entertainment. With screengrabs and gifs, we could instantly focus our outrage and memes to mock the #tonedeaf ad’s inclusion of brunching millennials and fist bumps.

There have been much worse ads conceived and aired. There have been ads created with the intent to be banned for broadcast to draw interest to free online views. What we saw here was an ad that went off the rails without enough naysayers in the room. Coupled with a celebrity that already has online haters that question the worthiness of her celebrity and value for the millions she makes for social endorsements and influencer campaigns. No one was in the mood for mercy.

It was hard to find anyone who saw the ad without having heard about it first. A colleague’s boyfriend had, and liked it on first viewing. They may have shown it to focus groups that didn’t notice or think about some of the lambasted aspects of it. As brands weigh in on complex and controversial social issues, they need to be genuine and mindful of alternative views. It may not be a bad thing to seek outside opinions along the way. What did you think of the ad?