In a world where consumers are increasingly demanding social responsibility from their chosen brands, it’s imperative that said brands refrain from turning social movements into tropes to be exploited. The consequences, as Pepsi found out last week, can be severe. On Tuesday, the soda brand attempted to capitalize on the perceived Social Justice Warrior generation with an ad disarming a police blockade using a can of delicious cola delivered by the stunning in slow-mo Kendall Jenner. What they got instead of cheering crowds and a Coachella dance party was an enraged social media mob. How did things go so wrong? Here are 5 steps to validating your campaign concept.
In fairness to Pepsi, their ad did bring people together.
— Josh Barro (@jbarro) April 4, 2017
1. Make sure your spokesperson is relevant.
Pepsi is only the latest in a series of big name brands getting tripped up by misreading public opinion. Last year Budweiser pulled an ad series amidst backlash for Seth Rogan and Amy Schumer advocating the gender spectrum in a commercial called “Labels”. While the reasons might be multi-faceted, one important question that was overlooked is “Are these spokespeople really the best choice?” Kendall Jenner is undeniably glamorous, but it’s that glamour that made her as wrong for the Pepsi spot as Rogan and Schumer were for Budweiser. If you’re going to use a celebrity to represent your brand within a cause, make sure that it’s a cause they’re known for supporting. No one is going to bat an eye at Matt Damon in a Poland Spring commercial about making clean water available to everyone, but Lance Armstrong supporting a healthy lifestyle? Don’t shoe-horn a supermodel into the middle of a protesting crowd. You can do better than that.
2. Be genuine.
This Pepsi ad is so unrealistic. Those protesters would have been Dr. Pepper Sprayed. https://t.co/oNjjtm6eFu
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) April 5, 2017
Whichever side of whichever issue you happen to be on, it’s clear that there are as many problems facing our world as proposed ways to fix them. And with the key demographic of young, active people increasingly getting involved it might look like prime real estate to advertisers. If you’re going to drink from those waters however, it’s vital that your message be formed around the movement and not the other way around. Airbnb’s Super Bowl ad about acceptance is a prime example of how to do it right. The 30 second spot is filled with messaging about racial, orientation, religious and gender co-operation all packaged with some beautiful photography and clever editing. In fact, you can’t even tell it’s a commercial; rather than a PSA, until the last 2 seconds when the hashtag #weaccept flashes over the company’s logo. It’s a touching commentary set over soft piano music that could easily move one to tears, and into an Airbnb partnership.
3. Don’t hop on the bandwagon, build it.
Along the same lines as being relevant, don’t play ‘social movement roulette’ when choosing where to focus your efforts. Recently Lyft has been held up as the paradigm for “good is the new cool” putting its money where its mouth is by headlining corporate values and with programs like “Round Up & Donate”. Anyone can get behind adopting puppies, but how is that applicable to your brand? Making the world a better place is a wide scope; be specific, make it personal, and build a cause rather than borrowing one.
4. Make a list of what you’ll be praised AND criticized for.
This one should be obvious, but there are some nuances that may be as difficult to grasp as a soda can. Going back to Budweiser, its 2017 Super Bowl ad extolling the virtues of immigrants received just as much hostility as it did praise. The company has gone on record in saying that it’s only coincidence that the commercial aired at the same time the White House announced its controversial travel ban, but that’s not the point. What is clear is that observant people sat down and considered the content from the audience’s perspective and decided that the cause was in keeping with their values despite the criticism it might receive.
The inoffensive generic protest signs in Pepsi's woke Kendall Jenner ad are hilarious. pic.twitter.com/9t2h6YxCZL
— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) April 4, 2017
5. Put it all under a microscope, before your audience does.
Can you find a person over 30 in the Pepsi commercial? Or one that doesn’t look like they stopped for that protest on the way to a GQ runway? It’s well known that people like looking at attractive people, but when your campaign is going to be seen as sponsorship for a social cause, it’s critical to include a healthy dose of reality. Remember that your audience is going to be looking at every frame, every street sign, every license plate. Not every faux pas may be as obvious as Nivea’s “White Is Purity” but if it’s in there, the internet will find it and you do /not/ want to be the next #prnightmare.
— Katina Rojas Joy (@krojasjoy) April 5, 2017
With the bar of advertising creativity on a constant rise, it might be tempting to use current events to punctuate your content campaigns. And it can pay off big like it has for Airbnb, Lyft, and Delta, if you can remain genuine and critical of what it is you’re saying to the audience. It’s important, nay required, that if you’re going to tap into people’s passion for social justice, you do it with the same concern that you would religion. If someone on your review team says that having Heidi Klum seduce the Dalai Lama with a cheeseburger is in bad taste, you probably shouldn’t have her offer it to a police blockade instead. Just sayin’.