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Radical Soda Pops

Pepsi’s at it again

In a 1982 interview, the late writer Toni Cade Bambara likened the responsibility of an artist to the work of an advertising executive. “As a cultural worker who belongs to an oppressed people,” she said, “my job is to make revolution irresistible.” Of course Bambara was referring to politically minded artists using their influence to help promote resistance in their communities. Yet I couldn’t help but think of that quote this week, when Pepsi unveiled, then quickly retired, a controversial commercial starring the supermodel and socialite Kendall Jenner at the vanguard of a fictional protest. It’s clear that the soda maker was trying to make the revolution not only irresistible (the ad’s called “Jump In”) but also delicious, refreshing, and aggressively branded by PepsiCo.

The two-minute-and-forty-second spot begins with an establishing shot of an unnamed metropolis and musicians practicing instruments. Next come a few flashes, then music. We then see Jenner playing a version of herself, posing on a street-side photoshoot. That scenario is intercut with footage of a young Muslim woman photographer looking over a contact sheet, and a slowly massing political rally. As the narrative builds, Jenner is gradually drawn toward the gathering crowd, and ultimately throws off her wig and joins the protest. She maneuvers her way through the crowd—peppered with signs sporting hilariously anodyne slogans like “Join the conversation”—daps at other young people, and pulls up short at an impasse between the protestors and a wall of police. (Cops, it appears, aren’t ardent conversationalists.) Finally, she picks up a can of Pepsi and brings it to a stern-looking cop, who then sips the drink and looks over the oddly festive atmosphere, refreshed. The Muslim photographer loses her dour and focused mien, breaks out into an appreciative smile, and snaps what we can only assume is an iconic photo of the exchange. The ad closes with the campaign’s slogan: “Live Bolder, Live Louder, Live for Now.”

The revolution will be delicious, refreshing, and aggressively branded by PepsiCo.

Perhaps it’s the spirit of that tagline that has inspired so much uproar online; much like the directive to “join the conversation,” it neatly embodies Pepsi’s vision of social protest as something fizzy, cost-free, and fun. As many people have pointed out, the ad is a gross inversion of Jonathan Bachman’s 2016 photo of Baton Rouge demonstrator Ieshia Evans protesting the police killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. (The difference here being, of course, that Evans was arrested and jailed, not revered as a supermodel with a puckish flair for cheering up riot police.)

And while appropriating a renowned, symbolically charged moment from a Black Lives Matter protest, the commercial steers resolutely away from any social issues of substance. Its vacuous celebration of creativity and its relentlessly cheerful tone invoke a galaxy far, far away from the Ferguson and Baltimore uprisings. This is an especially grotesque fantasy of popular protest at a moment when proposed legislation would make it legal to run over protesters in Tennessee and North Dakota and nineteen Republican-led legislatures have introduced bills that would stifle peaceful protest. Like the successful anti-Pinochet ad campaign portrayed in Pablo Larrain’s brilliant No, the Pepsi commercial utilizes effervescent joy—albeit to promote a message that’s very much antithetical to the one promulgated by Larrain and the Chilean strategists he profiled. The ad is pure saccharine, designed to go down as smoothly and automatically as a can of soda.

However, to its credit, the online world choked on Pepsi’s offering. To say that the Jenner ad prompted a backlash would be an understatement. The reaction on social media and the blogosphere was swift. On Twitter, Bernice King weighed in on the controversy, captioning an archival photo of Mississippi Highway patrolmen accosting her father Martin Luther King, Jr., with “If only daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi.” Baltimore BLM-associated activist Deray McKesson tweeted “If I had carried Pepsi I guess I never would’ve gotten arrested. Who knew?” In an article meant to deconstruct what it calls “one of the most reviled ads in recent memory,” Adweek cited data from marketing technology company Amobee Brand Intelligence, which measured Pepsi’s digital engagement and found that “31 percent has labeled the ad as ‘tone-deaf’ and 10 percent has tagged it as the ‘worst ever.’” Pepsi ultimately pulled the ad on Wednesday, admitting that the company’s effort to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding” apparently “missed the mark.” Nor was this the last word in poorly conceived product come-ons. On Tuesday, the German skincare company Nivea revoked an ad promoting its Invisible For Black & White deodorant that featured the tagline “White is purity.”

The Pepsi and Nivea debacles are of a piece with a series of commercials that proved contentious earlier this year. During the Super Bowl, “Born the Hard Way,” a commercial by beer makers Anheuser-Busch was the subject of much debate. Because it depicted the mythic origin story of its immigrant founders, the spot seemed to be a response to the president’s much-derided travel ban. Although censored by Super Bowl broadcaster Fox, another ad commissioned by building materials supply company 84 Lumber gained Internet buzz due to its poignant setting, which featured an American-bound Mexican mother and daughter obstructed by the border wall Trump proposed.

In an essay on the beer ad, The New Inquiry’s Aaron Bady used Soviet film theory to explain the latent messaging within the clip’s mise-en-scene. “As any good communist film theorist knows, the true kernel of film is the cut—the place where the decision to edit turns the jump from one thing to another into a conjunction, a relationship, an argument, and a story,” he wrote. “In the reality show that America now is, to cut from Trump’s Muslim ban to a Budweiser commercial is to place the two in relation, and this is what this commercial has done.” He went on to further describe the role editing plays in the commercials:

As Soviet film theorists figured out—when they were trying to reverse-engineer Hollywood’s incredibly successful capitalist propaganda machine—the trick was (among other things) to hide the ideology in the gaps, implied, to make sure it didn’t feel like propaganda (which the 84 Lumber ad obviously does). If you know you are being made to feel, you will resist; ideology is transmitted when you feel more than you know.

The slogan “live for now” perfectly distills the selective amnesia Pepsi wanted to inculcate in the ad’s viewers.

Pepsi clearly underestimated people’s capacity to feel more than they’d know, especially when our present hypermediated moment is rife with recent real-life experiences to draw from, and technology that enables instant recall. If the Budweiser commercial emphasized the power of the cut, the Pepsi ad stressed what ends up on the cutting-room floor. Indeed, the ad’s sequence featuring the young photographer abandoning the negatives she already had in favor of taking her camera out into the streets, is a weird meta-commentary on Pepsi’s own willful ignorance of actual history in order to confect a conflict-free fantasia of a Black Lives Matter protest action without any racial or political content. The slogan “live for now” perfectly distills the selective amnesia Pepsi wanted to inculcate in the ad’s viewers—a receptive state of auto-suggestion remote in every way from the usual suspension of disbelief cinema requires. It’s this radically de-centered version of living for the moment, shorn of any intelligible context, that the Soviet cut turns into a lacuna. But in this case, Pepsi didn’t merely hide its ideology in the gaps, as Bady claimed the Soviets did; here, the gap is ideology.

The ad not only ignores recent American political history; it disregards Pepsi’s own strategic entrance into the civil rights zeitgeist. According to NYU professor Marion Nestle in her 2015 book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (And Winning), Pepsi established a reputation for its involvement in early twentieth-century race relations under a directive from former company president Walter Mack, who “deliberately set out to make Pepsi more widely available to the ‘Negro market.’” Apparently the company recruited black people during World War II and opened integrated canteens for service members abroad. Nestle noted that “Soda companies explicitly use philanthropy to forge relationships with African and Hispanic American community groups. . . . Today, it is difficult to imagine an African or Hispanic American organization or event that is not sponsored by Coke, Pepsi, or the American Beverage Association.”

That constructed relationship no doubt accounts for at least some of the derision and ridicule the Jenner ad has sparked—a global beverage giant that sought initially to link consumer habits to the civil-rights causes is now trying to causally annex the spirit of BLM protest to its corporate portfolio.

Forget that anonymous metropolis from the ad (which hearkens back to Budweiser’s Whatever USA pop-up town), the activism that’s galvanized specifically in places like Philadelphia—where I live—shows the artificial flavor of relationships between corporate entities and black people.

It’s hard not to see, yet again, a looming brand logo crowding out the daily, real-life struggles of people in the black community.

One day at my local supermarket, I drifted off while standing in a long self-checkout line, failing to pick up on how the name of those payment machines mirrored the daze induced by waiting to access them. As I shifted my weight impatiently from one leg to the other, daydreamt, and silently urged the line of customers ahead of me forward, I was suddenly shocked out of my shopper’s stupor by the voice of a man with a stop sign on his shirt. The DARE-like logo said “Ax the Tax” (i.e., the city’s recently instituted tax on soft drinks). As the soda advocate made his way throughout the crowded front-end area of the ShopRite, making conversation with the mostly black clientele, I recognized a different kind of sale was being made: here was a real-life bid to mine a broader mood of discontent within the black community for the sake of the beverage industry’s bottom line.

In Philadelphia, you see, we’re in the midst of a charged debate over the Beverage Tax, which imposes a 1.5 cent levy on sugar-sweetened liquids. Even though the tax’s backers have touted it as a boon to pre-K instruction in the revenue-strapped Philly public schools, it’s not been universally embraced. Detractors of the tax noted with glum satisfaction the news that PepsiCo planned to lay off 80-100 workers at a regional distribution center as a result of the tax’s impact. But apart from the running debate over the tax’s relative merits, it’s hard not to see, yet again, a looming brand logo crowding out the daily, real-life struggles of people in the black community. And no matter how many supermodels and pretend cellists the company hires to burnish its effervescently creative and street-savvy image, that’s a hard thing to swallow.