One Year Later: “That Pepsi Ad” – The Legacy You Don’t Want For Your Brand

Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize…We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.” – PepsiCo

Issuing the above statement is any modern marketer’s nightmare. There are few hits that strike harder than having to 1) pull, and 2) apologize for a creative that your team worked long, hard hours refining. Advertisers are more conscious than ever of their very real responsibility to their audiences to message and speak in a way that uses frameworks of equality and empathy. But good intentions can, and often do, miss the mark. Just watch the video for yourself:

How Can Marketers Create “Social Good” Responsibly

At Neuro-Insight, more and more clients have been voicing questions around how to be successful with ‘social good’ brand-linked messaging, after seeing so many pieces of creative flop. What happens when they do? And how can we avoid such blunders that turn concepts crafted to inspire and motivate into offensive and damaging content, affecting our audiences and brands?

If you haven’t placed the brand and ad yet, Pepsi’s apology was issued after ‘that’ Kendall Jenner ad was released by Pepsi in 2017. We wanted to look back on what advertisers can learn going forward in the space of ‘for good’ advertising. Just look at the ads that ran in this year’s Super Bowl—how many of these ads had social good messaging? Now, how many of these ads made you cringe while you watched them? There’s a very real reason for that reaction, and we can measure it with neuroscience.

How Neuroscience Helps Tell the Story

Shortly after the ad went live, Neuro-Insight analyzed the ad using the company’s proprietary SST (Steady State Topography) technology to unpack the conscious and subconscious effects the ad had on real consumers in New York City. This type of testing is so important for content that speaks to issues in the social justice, humanitarian, and political spaces, because traditional methods that rely on self-reported answers (think surveys, focus groups, and the like) are greatly limited not only by their traditional restraints such as recall and biases, but they are further complicated by the subject matter itself.

For example, let’s say your team is asked to create an ad that empowers and motivates women. You show the ad to a focus group of men and women using a traditional qualitative approach. In just that focus group you have numerous group dynamics (both subconsciously learned and explicitly taught) affecting how each gender responds to your questions. That is, we are in a space where certain discussions in gender equality are becoming more normalized (cat-calling is bad, for example), so both parties may be more likely to self-report that they find messages that speak to this topic empowering. But, it becomes more complicated as we introduce more nuanced issues that women may be less likely to self-report relating to. From qualitative research I’ve worked on, I’ve witnessed rationalizations such as: ‘I shouldn’t be offended by this,’ or ‘at least they are talking about this, so I ought to like it’. Is that the highest bar we’re striving for? Are we (marketers) really empowering women, or are we empowering women how we think we are supposed to?

Neuro-Insight’s Metrics Paint the Full Picture

Now, back to Kendall Jenner. Below, we see the time series data showing second-by-second response to the item across Neuro-Insight’s measurements—Long Term Memory, Engagement (personal relevance), Emotional Intensity (the amount of emotion), and Approach/Withdraw (the feeling of wanting to approach something versus the gut feeling that you want to repel away from something). The measurements map back to the amount of activity in localized parts of the brain responsible for processing these responses.

A few quick takeaways from the analysis:

  • Intro & Protest
    • The first strong withdraw (‘dislike‘–specifically, the balance of activity between the left and right hemispheres in the prefrontal cortex; greater left prefrontal activity indicating approach, right indicating withdraw) response comes as the protest element is introduced—showing the marching young group with peace signs. However, we see an Approach response with the female artist (perhaps, she could have been a more successful central character).
      • Overall, we see the protest peppered with strong dislike peaks, with moderate to high Emotional Intensity (EI)—that is, not only does it elicit a negative response, the response is a strong negative reaction.
  • Kendall Jenner Introduction
    As Jenner is introduced, we see a sustained dislike response coupled with very strong Emotional Intensity.

  • Pepsi Handoff Sequence

    • As Jenner hands the police officer the Pepsi, we immediately see a strong dislike reaction, followed by a rapid decline in Memory—as the police officer sips the Pepsi and the crowd breaks out in cheers, viewers disengage, ultimately resulting in a strong sentiment of dislike at end branding.


What Went Wrong?

The Protest
We see sentiment of dislike throughout the item during scenes of protestors. What are they protesting? Who is this group? And what role does Pepsi play in the conversation?

The Spokesperson
Given the strong peak in Emotional Intensity when viewers see Jenner, coupled with the withdraw reaction and Memory Encoding peak, we can say that Jenner is not helping the narrative.

The Solution
The end sequence was what really put Pepsi in danger—the solution the item offered over-simplified the complex frame the creative used, leading viewers to not only dislike the sequence (the Pepsi hand off to the police officer) but ultimately to carry these negative feelings on towards final Pepsi branding and messaging, as we see strong Long Term Memory Encoding during this moment. We’ve seen this many times over with ads that oversimplify complicated topics in an attempt to tie their brand to current events.

This withdraw response is mirrored by the conversations on social media directly following the release of the item. The next Wednesday, Pepsi drew 1.25 million mentions on social, with 58.6% of them negative, according to social media monitoring company Brandwatch. Pepsi is Pepsi. They can and did survive this. Only a huge, historical brand like Pepsi could walk away from this long-term; a smaller company would likely never be the same.

In sum, we’re in a pivotal moment in the advertising industry. Advertisers are aligned with the desire to create content that accomplishes more than just product sales; we as an industry want to engage our audiences in meaningful—and appropriate—ways. We’ve seen it in our own company with the kinds of questions our clients have been asking around ‘advertising for good,’ and I’m constantly inspired by the brands who diligently research how to generate this content in a responsible and respectful way. These subjects aren’t as simple as “do you like the ad,” or “does this make you want to buy more Pepsi,” but rather touch on layered conscious and subconscious responses. If you’re electing to engage in these conversations, you take on the responsibility to understand the environment, the people, and how your brand does, or does not, fit in the conversation.

Next time, we’ll take a look at how social good advertising, when used in a responsible and genuine way, can help your brand and your consumers.

By: Neuro-Insight US Inc.


Full compass with layersAsset 3
Full compass with layersAsset 3

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