Opinion

How I Learned to Feel Sorry for Pepsi

Big business isn't trying to make political statements but to sell face cream and soda, that's all, which doesn't stop the political-correctness police from attacking them

Bear statues outside the Nivea Haus store, operated by Beiersdorf in Berlin, Germany, Jan. 11, 2016.
Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

Honestly, it’s hard to feel sorry for a big impersonal corporation, but this week any reasonable person’s heart has to go out to PepsiCo and the German cosmetics maker Beiersdorf.

Both companies launched ad campaigns that were savaged in the social media for being racist and offensive. Both companies quickly pulled them.

Beiersdorf was tripped up by its ad for a deodorant produced for its Nivea line of skincare products. On Middle Eastern Facebook pages, its ad featured a woman in a white gown in a white room with the slogan “White is purity.”

Pepsi, meanwhile, released a video showing protestors and a line of police officers presumably headed for confrontation before reality TV star Kendall Jenner picks up a conveniently located can of Pepsi and presents to one of the officers, who grins in response. Tensions recede.

Kendall Jenner for PEPSI Commercial YouTube

However offensive either one of these ads were, and we’ll get to that shortly – the response from many on social media was certainly far more so.

One Tweet called the Pepsi ad “the best example of white and economic privilege / ignorance I’ve ever seen.”  Another asked Beiersdorf , “Y'all gonna apologize for making basically a neo nazi ad on Friday?”

Y'all should have expected it

Beiersdorf was stupid for letting an ad like that go on line, not because it was actually offensive, but because in our racially charged era, the company should have expected the kind of reaction it got.

Let’s be real: Beiersdorf is not in the business of promoting the white race, but trying to convince the public to buy its beauty treatments. The last thing it wants is to offend any category of customer. The only people who should have been hurt in this affair is Beiersdorf, whose executives were accused of being neo-Nazis.

The Pepsi ad certainly borrows images from the Black Lives Matter protests, which is why it drew the attention of social media critics.

Pepsi: In the business of selling soda, that's all. Picture shows a Pepsi manufacturing assembly line with filled bottles, caps on, going down the line.
Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

But the image of demonstrators facing off a line of police is not unique to the movement. The picture of Ieshia Evans standing alone opposite a team of heavily armed riot police is one of the most memorable images of the Black Lives Matter protests, but it is not a unique one either. Both images have been employed by the media forever.

In any case, the ad’s message about social unity with everyone sipping a fizzy drink is saccharine and maybe even crass, but there is no reason to think Pepsi was out to insult its African-American customers or make a political statement. Heavens, no, they just want to sell soda.

Pepsi made a brief attempt to defend the ad, but in the end its anxiety not to offend anyone, anytime, anywhere caused it to surrender just like Beiersdorf.

Impermissible body parts

We look back with a mixture of amusement and horror at the pre-sexual revolution obsession with sex in movies and advertising. There was a time when even married couples couldn’t appear in bed together even if they were fully dressed, and there was a long list of impermissible terms and body parts. In the McCarthy era, it was communists who were targeted; the remotest association with the movement or a remark that could be interpreted as making you a "red sympathizer" could find you in the crosshairs.

In both cases there were organizations and individuals serving as public guardians that terrified Hollywood, the media and business into conforming.

Today, the same scare tactics are being employed to fight racism. A self-appointed police force of people using Twitter, Facebook and other forums backed by a small industry of NGOs are constantly on the watch for how they can be offended. The bigger and more establishment the offender is, the better.

That’s not to say there isn’t racism or that it shouldn’t be fought, but the fight has crossed a line into a witch hunt.

Ironically, racism is less likely to be found in big corporations or in the media – a certainly it the messages they produce for the – than it is at the lower reaches of social media, ironically among the ordinary people that are supposed to be repository of good values and common sense.