Why That Catastrophic Pepsi Ad Was Actually A Resounding Success

Pepsi recently announced that it has pulled their Kendall Jenner advertisement (it was just as much an advertisement for her as it was for Pepsi) and have issued an apology, stating “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly we missed the mark, and we apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are removing the content and halting any further rollout.” But, as we well know, nothing ever gets truly erased from the internet, and, in any event, the advertisement has already been seen (or at the very least, mocked) by millions. The damage is done, and the whole story is instructive (not least because it feeds the Think Piece Industrial Complex – second only to Big Soda in terms of power and size). You can watch the ad below, but in the event that it is successfully scrubbed from YouTube, here is a quick synopsis: a protest for “unity” and “peace” breaks out on the streets. A meticulously diverse cast of attractive, young, creative types join the march. As they proceed down the street, the marchers pass Kendall Jenner, who in a moment of spirited independence, interrupts a fashion shoot to join the “protest.” As the shiniest of the group, she immediately becomes their de facto leader, and the march proceeds until it is met by a wall of policemen. Jenner, brave and bold, walks up to one of the cops (the shiniest, handsomest one, of course) and gives him a Pepsi. The crowd cheers and a new understanding and mutual goodwill is formed between the police and protestors.

So what do we have here? The ad has already been dissected on an aesthetic level elsewhere – with commentators pointing out the vapidity of the signs (which read like the wet dream of a junior advertising manager in charge of hashtags), the appropriation of imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement, the overt and ridiculous symbolism (the blonde wig is FAKE, but Pepsi, Pepsi is REAL), the tone-deafness of positioning a fabulously wealthy white woman at the head of a vague, multi-ethnic, protest movement, the insanity of the ending in which Jenner gives the policeman a Pepsi to enormous cheers… The list goes on – at least we can say that Pepsi created a text richly imbued with occasions for deconstruction.

But aesthetic concerns are not the primary reason behind this article, rather, let’s take a broader approach. We know why Pepsi would make this ad – they want to capitalize on the energy of the growing protest movements around the country. And in this regard, it is also quite obvious how the advertisement and its reception play into the larger political landscape (though it does, interestingly, put the hyper-partisan consumer in an odd position. The ad, had it been positively received, would likely have been decried as “anti-Trump.” Now that the ad been widely lambasted however, with the loudest voices coming from an anti-Trump perspective, the right is thrust into a position in which Pepsi can become an anti-left symbol. The enemy of my enemy…).

Before delving deeper, we must acknowledge that Pepsi is not the first offender in terms of co-opting the aesthetics of protest, nor will it be the last. And it is the fact that Pepsi is so unoriginal in this regard that makes the advertisement, and its backlash, so important. This commonplace problem should prompt us to consider the ad not within the context of the present political moment, but rather within the larger context of capitalism itself. Specifically, we might turn to Mark Fisher’s seminal text “Capitalist Realism,” which proves particularly prescient in this situation. The book, like the title implies, examines the ways in which capitalism colors all facets of daily life, and the ways in which capitalist realism is supplanting reality as such. To start, let’s examine the advertisement in light of the following two passages:

One of the main problems of late capitalism, as predicted by theorists much older than Fisher, Theodor Adorno for example, is the process of incorporation, whereby things that once existed outside of the capitalist system are eventually brought into the fold. For a recent, and morbidly humorous example – we must now pay to visit Marx’s grave, turning the author of the Communist Manifesto into a site of tourism and capital. Marx himself has thus been incorporated into the system. Before turning to Fisher’s neologism, “precorporation,” let’s divert briefly to the second passage. The “Here” in question is referring to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana, but could just as easily, to bring things back to the Pepsi ad, refer to the Black Lives Matter protests. Success here is not defined as effecting change, but rather in terms of achieving visibility, and the protests have certainly succeeded in this regard – Black Lives Matter having become a national movement with widely recognized aesthetic markers and artifacts. The problem identified by Fisher is that it is precisely because of the movement’s success that it has been co-opted, and thus mocked and sterilized (to an extent), by Pepsi. Capitalism compounds success with more, similar, material until the original is sucked dry – then onto the next big thing.

This all seems obvious enough, but it is with the idea of “precorporation” that Fisher makes an advance. If we look at how contemporary protest movements become successful in the first place, we can see that they are “precorporated” into the capitalist system, that is, they are necessarily constituted in such a way as to perfectly lend themselves to incorporation. In order to spread, in order to be successful on a national scale, protests must use social media, they must make use of hashtags, of merchandise, of spectacle – essentially, protests take the form of advertisements, and vice versa. Protest has its own cottage industry of commodities and codes that both feed the success of a movement and ultimately, once the process of incorporation reaches its summit, become the raison d’etre for the movement – incorporation being both a repurposing and a neutering.

In “The Demagogue Takes The Stage,” a superb and important article in Places Journal, Reinhold Martin writes that in order for power, specifically political power, to properly function it “must stand on ground that has been made sacred as a stage” and this ground “is always already there, ahead of the performers, preparing the ground, laying things out, positioning speakers and addressees and establishing the basis for the reality that they will enact together.” Martin uses, by way of example, “the political rally before the speech, the executive office awaiting an occupant, the pulpit awaiting a preacher,” but we might also add the protest awaiting a cause. The very presence of the aesthetics of protest in the advertising world imbues the advertisement with an urgency, an abstract notion of duty that can be disassociated to fit any ideology, a readymade system of cliches that ease the “creative process” and the viewing process alike.

But with the Pepsi ad, we’ve seen through all that, haven’t we? In general, when an advertisement faces this kind of backlash, we tend to stop at the assertion that Pepsi has only revealed itself as yet another vapid corporation, lazily incorporating protest to sell soda, unconcerned with any political issues. Some anti-corporate rhetoric here, perhaps a boycott there, – all with a fundamental belief in the vapidity of the corporate space. But underneath this abstract simulacrum of a protest is a very real ideology cleverly masked as vapidity. When corporations like Pepsi incorporate the aesthetics of protest, it does not matter what the original, incorporated protest was for; it is the act of sterilization and incorporation that’s important.

This is why “unity” is the perfect buzzword. A protest, in a certain sense, is a demand for unity insofar as the ultimate goal is to persuade people to adopt a unified viewpoint on an issue. But a protest for “Unity” is incoherent – unless of course we have something to unify behind. It may seem as if the unifying “cause” is Pepsi, but “Unity” is not just oriented towards a single product – there is more at stake here than soda. The desire for “Unity” is the inherent ideology behind capitalism itself. “Unity” is the stifling of dissent, the homogenization of desires – insofar as we are “unified,” our consumptive potential can go unhindered by political or even libidinal concerns. In the world of the commercial, the “unity” between protestor and state under the auspices of the Pepsi Corporation is the ultimate satisfaction of capitalist realism – finally the contradictions between capital and labor, state and individual, are erased in the single homogenous pursuit of capital.

One might argue that, despite all this, the advertisement failed – it did not unify us behind consumption but rather prompted a renewed outrage at consumption itself. But here is the tricky thing about “Unity” and capitalist realism – even in failure, even when it ostensibly undermines itself, it is enhanced by this process of undermining. As Fisher writes, “capitalist realism is very far from precluding a certain anti-capitalism.” The advertisement itself has incorporated some anti-capitalist elements (consider Jenner removing her wig and lipstick to join the protest or the focus on performers and artists as symbols of the “real” as opposed to the “fake,” that is, the commodified). According to Fisher, performative anti-capitalism, like the kind we have in the Pepsi ad, creates a kind of “‘interpassivity’… [the commercial] performs our anti-capitalism for us, allowing us to continue to consume with impunity.” “The Lego Movie,” (the performative anti-capitalist film par excellence) for instance, positions “big business” as the villain, thus allowing us to pat ourselves on the back for having recognized the evils of corporations while simultaneously consuming those corporations’ products.

The Pepsi ad, however, operates on meta level. The ad is so nakedly performative, so nakedly and ambitiously corporate, that it is the outrage, rather than the ad itself, that inspires this interpassivity. The response to the ad is obvious to the point that it is essentially programmed into the ad itself. “We believe,” Fisher writes, “that money is only a meaningless token of no intrinsic worth, yet we act as if it has a holy value. Moreover, this behavior precisely depends upon the prior disavowal – we are able to fetishize money in our actions only because we have already taken an ironic distance towards money in our heads.” “The Lego Movie” achieves this effect by way of positioning business as the villain, the Pepsi ad achieves this effect by positioning itself as the villain. We can continue to operate as consumers, exactly as before, only because we have completed our castigation of the ad. The Pepsi ad is the sacrificial lamb on the altar of capital – it dies so that we, as consumers, might live.

Pepsi, far from pulling a gaffe, has achieved a wild success. The product might suffer in the short term, some helpless advertisement workers might lose their jobs, but the systems and ideologies that enable Pepsi to exist in the first place have been bolstered and buttressed by the “failure” of the advertisement. This is the state of our world, of capitalist realism: failure is success, success is failure, and Pepsi knows you better than you know yourself.

Jake Romm is a Contributing Editor for The Forward. Contact him at romm@forward.com or on Twitter, @JakeRomm


Jake Romm

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