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Big ad campaigns can be hit or miss. That’s not news to advertisers, but in today’s cultural environment, a big ad can not only be a “miss” — it can cause a national outcry. In this case, it’s not true that all press is good press.

As they push boundaries to get noticed and plug into contemporary cultural happenings, advertisers would do well to avoid launching this kind of a bad ad campaign. Here’s how to avoid falling into the trap in the first place, plus what to do if you do find yourself in such a situation.

The Pepsi Ad Controversy

The latest brand to find itself facing backlash for an advertisement is soda pop brand Pepsi. The brand’s recent video ad featured model and reality show star Kendall Jenner offering a can of Pepsi to a police officer at a protest. The ad debuted on YouTube April 4, and by April 5 the controversy was in all the major papers and trending on social media. Said the New York Times:

Pepsi has apologized for a controversial advertisement that borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement, after a day of intense criticism from people who said it trivialized the widespread protests against the killings of black people by the police.

Pepsi killed the new campaign just a day after it debuted and released a statement of apology:

Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.

Why the Pepsi Ad Failed

Many people have weighed in on why the ad fell so flat. The BBC noted it was the latest in a long line of ads that offended customers by “trivializing” a popular social change protest movement. AdWeek said veteran advertiser Edward Boches called the ad “contrived.” And several prominent civil rights protesters chimed in on social media, per the NYT.

Another consideration, a mass-market product like Pepsi had many audience segments to please. It’s true that you can’t please all the people all the time, but in this case, no one was pleased. Protesters felt the ad trivialized their struggles. Supporters of law enforcement likely weren’t too keen to see what they feel is yet more media sensationalism. And bystanders likely agreed with Boches that the whole civil-rights-showdown-solved-with-a-soda narrative was completely contrived. Even Jenner herself was unhappy with how the ad turned out.

These problems could have been avoided by Pepsi not weighing in on such a serious and hot-button topic. Or hypothetically, Pepsi could have more deeply explored one particular side’s reality, such as that of the protesters, though that would have caused its own kind of backlash from the other side of the issue — another situation best avoided.

A Quick Reaction and Recovery

However, experts seem to agree that what Pepsi did right was to react quickly. A quick, to-the-point apology and ceasing of the advertising campaign’s rollout limited the damage. As many people learn at their first retail or restaurant job: apologize too much or for too long a time and people can get madder as they dwell on the problem!

Pepsi acted quickly and then moved on, and while some may have continued to be outraged days or weeks later, most Pepsi customers had moved on by the end of the week. By June, AdWeek was already singing Pepsi’s praises for a unique multi-screen mobile ad about Ramadan that rolled out in Middle East and North African markets.

Other Bad Ad Campaigns

Of course, Pepsi is far from alone in debuting a bad ad campaign. Just in the first half of 2017, Digiday counted eight other bad campaigns, including a Kennedy assassination-themed ad for Mazda and a VW “Luv Bug” campaign that bordered on R-rated territory.

Another beverage maker, Smartwater, managed to earn the bad ad distinction with a nonsensical campaign featuring actress Jennifer Aniston. Quipped one magazine editor on Twitter:

Oh are we just writing random words on advertisements now?





Inspired by giraffes

That version actually makes just as much sense as the original. Which is a problem.

Final Thoughts

It’s not always possible to create a hit ad, but it is generally possible to avoid serious backlash from a really bad one. If you are considering alluding to a sensitive cultural topic, make sure you thoroughly understand the subject matter and the wider context. Consult with experts who may have more experience with that audience segment or part of the culture than your in-house team. Avoid trivializing something a part of your customer base may take very seriously. And if you do make a mistake, act quickly to apologize, pull the ad, and move on to your next marketing project.

Have questions about digital advertising for your business? Call us at 313-338-9515 or email to learn how our full-service digital agency can help.