Pepsi and the Diversity Checkbox

Words and art by Joey Parker

Advertising is a difficult industry to work in. I used to underestimate how every little aspect of the work we created would influence the general population in some way or another. Advertising relies on a connection with the consumer and whilst advertising agencies are painted as villainous corporations it’s usually not recognised how much power we the consumers have in dictating their success or, equally, their demise.

Never has this been more apparent than with the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad which parodied the Black Lives Matters marches and trivialised the lost lives at the hands of police brutality. After facing a fury of backlash from the internet, Pepsi pulled the ad less than 24 hours after it was released.

The ignorance of the ad is evident but what might be less obvious is the hypocrisy. The ad centres on the concept of protest with a very softcore demonstration of peace, love and equality. The key characters are an Asian virtuoso and a WOC photographer wearing a hijab. The creative geniuses behind it obviously drew some parallels between the diversity of the main characters and the sense of equality and unity that a protest supposedly implies. You can imagine a group of cis white blokes sat around a table in a lofty London office nodding, ‘yes, yes, THIS is diversity. This is ART. We’ve done it again boys!!’

And sadly that’s what diversity has become. It’s nothing more than a checkbox that the advertising industry implemented to try and avoid backlash. On paper the Pepsi ad is diverse. Asian man > white man. Woman of colour > white woman. A woman sporting a hijab > a white girl with dreads. Yet the ad itself completely misunderstands the concept of the Black Lives Matters protest. The subtle blue colour scheme throughout the entire ad is less emblematic of Pepsi branding and more reminiscent of the problematic movement Blue Lives Matter. Kendall Jenner’s arrogance in aggressively walking right up to the police barrier could not epitomise white privilege better, as any person of colour throwing that same attitude in the face of the police would not be shrugged off with a helpless smirk.

The demand for a diversity stems from requiring that marginalised people are given opportunities that heterosexual, white, cisgender, able-bodied men are offered without a second thought. And this isn’t achieved by putting a couple of individuals from these marginalised groups into an ad whilst simultaneously ridiculing a movement that is actually doing something to celebrate the principles of diversity. If this debacle with Pepsi tells us anything it’s that diversity can no longer be a box you tick by dropping some ‘exotic’ characters into the mix, as this ad that just did that remains offensive, insensitive and ignorant.

Take Lloyds banking group for example. Whilst race and sexuality are two different identities that create different scenarios for oppression, they both have marginalised groups. Lloyds embraced those of a marginalised sexuality with their ‘For Your Next Step’ campaign which featured two gay men in the midst of a marriage proposal. It added a further element of representation as one of the men was black – an underrepresented identity in the gay community.

Advertising is definitely not the best form of social activism. But when done properly, and  with the integrity of the companies being advertised, it can aid visibility and inclusivity by challenging societal norms. The fact of the matter is that Lloyds could have fallen into the same trap as Pepsi. But they didn’t. Because their principles of diversity are not something they chuck about to increase revenue – they are something that permeate the core of the company’s identity. In March they were declared by Stonewall as being the most inclusive employer in Britain. This was due to a number of factors, ranging from partnerships with LGBT+ charities, volunteering programs, awareness days and flying LGBT+ flags at their primary sites – factors that few employers recognise as crucial to their employees success as well as their wellbeing.

In a stark contrast to Pepsi’s insensitivity and lack of integrity, Lloyds went deeper than surface-level diversity and made those principles of equality core pillars of their identity and corporate structure.

One good thing to rise from this unfortunate series of events is that this ad serves as a cautionary tale to all brands and agencies that any half-arsed approach to diversity is just as bad as no approach at all. If ‘the internet’ alone can shut down a corporation as powerful as PepsiCo, other brands are going to need to recognise that just representing the principles of diversity is not enough as opposed to actually embodying them, or they’ll face going down themselves.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *