No sooner had Pepsi skooshed open its latest ad campaign than the internet burped it back up.
The soft drink giant’s new commercial featured Kendall Jenner (ask a young person) emerging from a crowd of protestors to offer a Pepsi to an officer on a police line. The two-and-a-half-minute promo was sugarier than the fizzy beverage it was hawking. A parade of suspiciously attractive demonstrators marched dreamily through the streets of a US city, powered only by air punches and smugness.
Their cause was unclear — the placards bore such subversive slogans as ‘Join the conversation’ — but going by the impeccable ensembles and excessive peppiness, they were likely veteran Gap extras protesting that Urban Outfitters ads just don’t pay as much. A confrontation with the least intimidating cops this side of a Keystone silent is mercifully averted when Jenner shows up and charms an amenable bobby with a can of pop, everyone does the ‘rock on’ fingers, and society’s ills are phony-laughed out of existence.
Safe to say the surviving members of the Chicago Seven needn’t worry about their legacy being overshadowed. But outrage culture being what it is, the internet couldn’t settle for deriding Pepsi’s vanilla activism.
On Twitter, where utterly conventional viewpoints go to be praised for their bravery, Pepsi was condemned for ‘cultural appropriation’ of Black Lives Matter. Over at Vox they never need to take offence because they carry it around with them at all times and Pepsi was accused of exploiting the iconic photograph of Ieshia Evans facing down cops at a rally against police killings of unarmed African-Americans. BuzzFeed took its users to DEFCON Listicle, with no fewer than five posts on Jennergate. Only a day after launching it, Pepsi canned its campaign.
Of course, youth culture and the marketing industry have been feeding off each other since the 1960s. Jean-Luc Godard called the counter-culture ‘the children of Marx and Coca-Cola’ and the blending of radical politics and conspicuous consumerism reached its apex in 1971 when Coca-Cola debuted its ‘I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke’ ad. The commercial bandwagoned on the hippie phenomenon and growing resistance to the Vietnam War in a way that normalised movements still eyed with suspicion by mainstream America while making everyone feel vaguely virtuous by drinking Coke.
The traffic isn’t only one-way. So many of the tools of digital activism have been imported wholesale from the world of viral marketing.
The sharply contrasting reactions to Coke ’71 and Pepsi ’17 says more about political culture than marketing. The flower power generation might have rolled their eyes and chucked the cynicism of Coca-Cola in with that of their parents and teachers and the government sending them out to kill and die along the Ho Chi Minh trail.
But they didn’t make it a cause; they genuinely wanted to change the world and in meaningful ways. Modern identity politics isn’t about change but self-fulfilment and these people take themselves very seriously. They can’t laugh off a corny ad and move on because humour requires understanding of a larger world out there, with competing interests and heterodox meanings.
They know only themselves and their preferences. They’re the children of Lena Dunham and microbrew.
A version of this article was published on the Spectator’s Coffee House blog.