A flat Pepsi: Tone-deaf commercial pulled after protests

Spot derided as ‘attractive lives matter’

Aurielle Lucier remembers the last time she came face to face with a police officer.

It was November 2014 and she was one of hundreds of young activists who had taken over Atlantic Station to protest the sudden wave of violence against blacks by police.

A local leader of the Black Lives Matter movement at the time, Lucier was taken into custody and held for nine hours before being released.

“I never even looked at the officer who took me in,” Lucier said Thursday. “But that is the sacrifice that black and brown organizers make every day.”

In retrospect, perhaps Lucier would have been better off just offering the officer a Pepsi.

On Wednesday, almost as swiftly as the company launched it, Pepsi withdrew its controversial “Jump In” commercial featuring Kendall Jenner.

Originally posted on YouTube, the ad “captures the spirit and actions of those people that jump in to every moment,” Pepsi wrote.

In the 2½- minute spot, protesters march down the street, catching the eye of a modeling Jenner.

All of the boxes are checked – Black. White. Hispanic. Asian. They all smile, laugh, hug and clap, while holding nonspecific signs like “Join the conversation.”

Talk show host Stephen Colbert referred to the commercial as “Attractive Lives Matter,” riffing on Jenner’s relationship to the Kardashians. But it is never clear what they are protesting.

Then, amid those clumsy references to Black Lives Matter and police brutality, Jenner takes off her blonde wig and heads to the front of the line.

There – in a clear visual reference to Baton Rouge protester Ieshia Evans – Jenner hands the police officer a can of Pepsi.

Evans, who was protesting the shooting death of Alton Sterling, was arrested for her efforts.

The police officer on the receiving end of Jenner’s Pepsi smiled. Then they all danced.

It was a stark contrast to Ferguson. To Baltimore. To Charlotte. To Baton Rouge. Even to Atlantic Station.

A stark contrast to the causes of Michael BrownEric GarnerTamir RiceRenisha McBrideEric HarrisWalter Scott,John Crawford IIISandra BlandPhilando Castile and Samuel DuBose — black men and women who died at the hands of some law enforcement.

“This ad communicates a reality that doesn’t exist for black people. Our resistance has never looked like a block party,” Lucier said. “This is a capitalistic exploitation of what Pepsi sees as a popular trend. But black protest is not a trend. This is not fun. We don’t hit the streets for a photo opp. We do this to protect our community and to provide visibility to our deaths and killing of our people.”

If Pepsi wanted the ad to spark conversation, it did. Just not how the company wanted.

The ad was greeted with widespread ridicule – most coming from social media and Black Twitter – which attacked it as tone-deaf.

“If I had carried Pepsi I guess I never would’ve gotten arrested,” tweeted prominent Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson. “Who knew?”

April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, tweeted: “Just want to point out, again, that it’s not ‘just Twitter.’ We came together in unison & had a multimillion-dollar ad pulled in (less than) 24 hours.”

Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., posted a rare ironic tweet.

“If only Daddy would have known about the power of #Pepsi,” she wrote.

Pepsi pulled the ad and then issued a statement on Wednesday: “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”

The company also apologized to Jenner, the younger sister of Kim, Khloé and Kourtney Kardashian and daughter of Caitlyn Jenner.

“I commend Pepsi for listening to the collective concerned voices and responding by pulling the ad,” Bernice King wrote in the Huffington Post. “Now is the time to channel our energy into positive discourse and actions to address the emotions the ad evoked and the issues that were central in the ad.”

In 2003, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Pepsi pledged to donate $3 million to charities amid threats by Russell Simmons to boycott the company after it dumped a commercial by Atlanta-based rapper Ludacris.

Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly railed against the company for hiring Ludacris, saying that he was “subverting the values of the United States.” Pepsi yanked Luda’s commercial, citing consumer complaints about his obscene lyrics.

Calls to Ludacris were not returned.

Timothy D. Lytton, a distinguished university professor at the Georgia State University College of Law, who writes about food policy and regulations, notes that Pepsi has been fairly aggressive in its attempts to push diversity across its brands.

“But it sounds like that intention did not carry over very well in terms of how it this commercial was perceived – which was the commercialization and trivialization civil rights efforts,” Lytton said.

Jim Wiggins, who runs JLT Communications Group, a marketing and public relations firm in Raleigh, said Pepsi’s decision to air the ad likely points to a problem the company is trying to address — lack of diversity.

“There is no question that blacks should be in the room,” Wiggins said. “It is very important to get input from your entire customer base to ensure fairness. In this era of heightened political correctness, it is prudent to address and consider inclusiveness on the front end of marketing and promotions to avoid the public relations backlash that Pepsi has to now endure. It is market research 101.”

Lytton, who has no first-hand knowledge of Pepsi’s advertising process, doubts that the company’s intent was malicious, adding that a corporation that large no doubt vetted the commercial before releasing it.

“But this shows that they may not be directly in touch with all of the prime movers in the audience they are trying to reach,” Lytton said. “This is a form of feedback for them. And what happened with this commercial will not fall on deaf ears inside the company. From a corporate point of view, this is an unfortunate set of events, but also an excellent learning opportunity.”

Following her tweet, King, who is the CEO of the King Center, tried to offer Pepsi an olive branch, by inviting them to dialogue with the organization.

In a piece for the Huffington Post, King wrote: “I invite Pepsi and other companies to join in Courageous Conversations facilitated by The King Center on the topics of social symbolism, race and responsibility, and presentations of privilege. In addition, I also invite corporations to engage with the Center for the purpose of planning sustainable and community-organized corporate responsibility initiatives.”

Lucier is less hopeful.

“Corporations like Pepsi have a unique opportunity to become involved in our work and be agents of progressive change with Black Lives Matter or with civil and human rights as a whole,” Lucier said. “Instead, they are capitalizing off of and exploiting the suffering of black people. And it won’t be the last time. So I am not holding my breath.”

AJC reporter Raisa Habersham contributed to this article.

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