The outrage directed at the infamous PepsiCo ad with Kendall Jenner still reverberates. Rather than try to describe each controversial and arguably insulting detail in the ad, I would encourage you to view the commercial that has now been pulled. It will likely answer many questions as well as reconfirm the problems with a lack of representation. Immediately after the ad ran, social media exploded with searing criticisms of the commercial. Late night TV host Jimmy Kimmel added that it was unfathomable to him that executives in the boardroom would allow such an ad to run given the current climate. Even Lena Durham, a person who has had her own issues and controversies as it relates to racial and other forms of diversity, blasted Pepsi for its actions. The words “tone deaf” became the rallying cry of the moment. Indeed, this was an accurate, spot-on description of the ad.
Bernice King, daughter of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., stated on Twitter, “If only Daddy had known the power of Pepsi.” Whew, enough said! On the political right, some argued that the ad minimized police officers and made light of law enforcement. Black Twitter and much of the blogger sphere was ablaze with cynicism, sarcasm, anger, and outright disgust. The heat was intense and Pepsi was getting it from all sides. One can only wonder what executives from Coca-Cola were thinking. After two days, Pepsi officials issued a statement (some argued that it was an awkward, weak apology) and announced that it was pulling the ad and apologized to Black, brown and other marginalized communities as well as to Kendall Jenner. “We did not intend to make light of a serious issue,” the company said. “We are pulling the content and halting any further roll out. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”
I don’t think anyone, including the critics who were indeed justified in their outrage at such a misguided commercial, believed that Pepsi acted with malicious intent. On the contrary, critics likely conceded that the company was sincere in its intentions. The fact is that there are times when even good intentions can go astray particularly when it relates to issues of diversity of cultural appropriation. Despite their best efforts, Pepsi managed to insult, minimize, patronize, carelessly objectify, marginalize, and, in some cases, dehumanize people of color, Black Lives Matter activists, victims of violence and others with a commercial that was far too simplistic and dismissive of the pain and real work that many unsung heroes others from varied communities are actively engaged. In essence, the ad whitewashed the often challenging and grim realities facing many people and communities of color. This is another example of White privilege. Being able to trivialize and distort the harsh realities that many non-Whites have to endure.
After a couple of days, it became known that there were no Black people in the decision-making process surrounding the decision to make and run the commercial. This is the real source of the problem. In too many cases where serious and potentially consequential decisions are being made, people of color are largely, if not totally absent, from the process. Not to say that Black people are monolithic, but I have to assume that if there had been at least a few Black or non-European Hispanics in the boardroom in question, that an entirely different sort of respectable commercial would have aired and Pepsi executives would not have been wiping egg off their perplexed and embarrassed faces.
Such an unfortunate incident demonstrates the serious need for racial diversity in corporate America and other aspects of society. The fact is that most people know what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to representing their respective communities. Given the rapidly changing demographics of our nation, especially among millennials, and hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars at stake, corporations like Pepsi and others can ill-afford to alienate an ever-growing, racially pluralistic consumer market.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is the co-author of Violence Against Black Bodies: An Intersectional Analysis of Why Black Lives Continue to Matter (Routledge Press, 2017) and a Professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University.