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The ad drew sharp criticism online, where it was accused of trivializing and mimicking imagery from recent protests for social justice causes — particularly last July’s protest against police brutality in Baton Rouge, La. It was online for about 24 hours.
Terry O’Reilly, ad industry veteran and host of CBC Radio’s Under the Influence, thought the ad was “tone deaf” and out of character for Pepsi; traditionally, the company’s ads haven’t waded into world issues.
O’Reilly said it’s a “new era” for advertising, one where companies have started (and are sometimes pressured) to take stances on divisive issues and mix politics into their messaging. Both Airbnb and building supply company 84 Lumber ran prime-time ads during February’s Super Bowl targeting President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration.
But these types of ads have the potential to backfire and alienate large swathes of an audience. That’s what O’Reilly thinks happened here. “I’m sure they knew it was going to be somewhat contentious,” he said.
At first, Pepsi defended the ad, saying in a statement that it showed “people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony.” But Pepsi apologized less than a day later, saying the ad had “missed the mark.”
Many other big brands have had their ads yanked — Sony once pulled a “racist” ad for its PSP device while Wrigley’s had to pull its ad of a man “barfing” up a dog. And PepsiCo, Pepsi’s parent company, has faced an ad backlash before. In 2013, Mountain Dew scrapped one of its ads criticized for portraying racial stereotypes and appearing to make light of violence toward women.
“I think they had no choice but to pull it because it was just so blatantly awful and tone deaf,” he said. “These are important issues and you can’t trivialize it like that.”
“By the time this piece is published, there will be someone else that did something more ridiculous and more stupid,” he said. “All will be forgotten tomorrow.”