Pepsi recently aired a new commercial featuring Kendall Jenner …and then took it down. If you haven't yet seen it, here's how it goes: the commercial shows a protest moving along a street, picking up people of different races, sexes and genders as it goes along, very diverse, approaching a police barricade. Predictably enough, throughout the commercial people randomly pick up Pepsis here and there. Off to the side is Kendall Jenner, posing for a photo shoot as she slips furtive glances at the protest. Near the close of the ad, a man beckons her to join them with a nod of his head and off she goes, our Kardashian social justice leader. It all culminates in a final scene where gorgeous, white model Jenner breaches the mounting tension between minorities and white cops by offering an officer a Pepsi.
Immediately people greeted this advertisement with anger and fury, prompting Pepsi to pull it off the air and respond: “Clearly, we missed the mark”. Yes Pepsi, yes you did. The biggest issue with this ad is a total misunderstanding of any social, minority driven movement, resulting in blatant promotion of the white savior complex and totally minimizing the legitimacy of these movements.
After pulling the ad, Pepsi responded with this: "We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position". The fact that they did not foresee this type of reaction, that they didn't consider the fact that it would be perceived in the way that it was is disgusting. It shows a complete lack of thought and analysis. It's a commercial sending the message that divisive social issues can be solved with soda. Of course people would think that's making "light of any serious issue".
Even worse is the apology for putting Jenner in this position. Kendall Jenner is a fully sentient human being. She went along with this process and fully knew what she was doing. Excuses can't be made for that kind of compliance.
Going even further, the fact that this image of Jenner approaching the officer is reminiscent of a Baton Rouge Black Lives Matter protest during which a young black woman, Ieshia Evans, approached an officer peacefully and was arrested, is even more disturbing. There’s a difference between being an ally to a minority group and acting the savior. This commercial shows that before the backlash, Pepsi’s advertising team had no idea what this difference is.
What separates an ally, or simply a sincere person passionate about social justice, from a “ white savior ” is understanding and effort. An ally acknowledges their own privilege and realizes that they will never fully know what it’s like to be a member of the minority group in question. An ally uses this knowledge to listen, to learn what they can actually do to help. Then, an ally actually does what they can to help and show solidarity.
An ally doesn’t hand a Pepsi to a police officer and suddenly break through a generations-old animosity. In the words of Mia McKenzie, this is what being an ally is about: “a way of living your life that doesn’t reinforce the same oppressive behaviors you’re claiming to be against.” But Pepsi fell victim to an appropriated use of the “ally” concept, one that ignores the real issue as long as the intention to help is present; one that ignores the true purpose of the movement and capitalizes on the moment. Through this commercial, Pepsi did reinforce the oppressive behaviors they tried to speak against in this ad.
We can only hope that next time Pepsi won't exploit the oppression of others for profit.