Soft drink giant, PepsiCo, recently withdrew its latest advertisement campaign, “Live for Now Moments” after huge social media backlash. The ad was criticized for co-opting protest movements and appropriating an iconic photograph from the Black Lives Matter movement.
It’s a shocker at least for the Indian audience. In October 2015, the country witnessed a student uprising in Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and other educational institutions against inappropriate academic appointments, including appointing Gajendra Chauhan as chairman of FTII’s governing council. Pepsi had mocked the entire struggle through its “Pepsi Thi, Pi Gaya” ad.
In spite of the criticism that the ad campaign received, PepsiCo refused to take it down unlike the Kendall Jenner ad that was taken off after it faced flak. Interestingly, the second largest food and beverage company in the world, is headed by Chennai-born Indra Nooyi.
The ad showed a hunger strike by a group of protesting college students, complete with slogans and placards. The scene closely resembled the strike by FTII students in Pune. The ad features a young student lured by a bottle of Pepsi, and drinking it while the leader of the agitation tells a news reporter that the hunger strike will continue.As everyone looked at him, he says, “Pepsi thi yaar, pi gaya” (It was Pepsi, I drank it).
The ad had then faced a huge social media backlash. Several Twitter users including FTII ‘s official twitter handle called out PepsiCo for discrediting the students’ movement.
PepsiCo, instead of pulling off the ad, issued a statement: “At PepsiCo we take great care to ensure that our campaigns do not hurt viewer sensibilities. We would like to bring to your notice that the latest Pepsi TVC has no correlation whatsoever with the ongoing protest by the students of FTII and in fact, viewers are sure to have noticed, that in the TVC’s fictitious situation, the placards are clearly opposing a fee hike in a college. The new ‘Pepsi thi, pi gaya’ campaign simply highlights the great taste of Pepsi through the eyes of its consumers.”
For the corporate giant, Pepsi is a holy drink which fixes inequality, racism, fascism and police brutality. Gifting a Pepsi can to the heavily armed riot police can bring happiness to the protest or a Pepsi can is powerful enough to lure away protesting youth from his struggle.
Both the ads show the recent shift in brand advertisements in general. An article published in The Guardian clearly analyses the effort of corporates to market activism. The corporates, who marketed sex and reduced woman as an object in the bill board, are now attempting to hijack and co-opt popular struggles ranging from FTII to anti-Trump protests.
“Our activism is currently mediated by brands,” Will Fowler, creative director of Headspace was quoted by Guardian as saying. “Brands are allowing people to pat themselves on the back without them personally having to sacrifice anything,” he added.
However, PepsiCo’s response towards both controversies exposes the big brand’s hypocrisy in dealing with customer responses. For the latest ad, PepsiCo admitted that they missed the mark in conveying the message and clearly apologised for it. But in the ‘Pepsi Thi Pi Gaya’ campaign, the brand dismissed the similarities with FTII struggle and justified that they only highlighted the taste of the soda through the perspective of a protester.
Through the ad, the brand had made light of the 139 day-long strike and portrayed a group of protesting students as flimsy.