Online Firestorms - Pepsi & United Airlines: A tale of two… | ...Gasp!

Online Firestorms

Pepsi & United Airlines: A tale of two f**k ups.

A couple of weeks on, The Blogfather deconstructs the recent Pepsi ad to glean some useful nuggets of insight, before laying into United Airlines.

*Just ask "Boaty McBoatFace"

Ah, the internet. That unpredictable beast. Many go in search of that viral piece of content to fire their brand into the upper echelons of relevance, but few find it. At least, not in a positive way*.

No doubt on paper, Pepsi thought they had a great piece of ‘content’ in the form of their Kendal Jenner Protest Ad. There’s a good chance you’ve seen it, but you can have a little look below.

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It’s not clear what they are protesting about, but given the jovial, meandering apathy of the crowd, presumably it’s the recent change in the Cadbury’s Crème Egg recipe.

Launched with much bullshit fanfare, the ad was produced by an in-house content creation team, the pretentiously titled ‘Creators League Studio’.

In Pepsi’s own words, the ad “takes a more progressive approach to truly reflect today's generation and what living for now looks like,” while wanting to “project a global message of unity, peace and understanding.”

They certainly projected a global message alright, but it was more like opportunistic chancers appropriating the Black Lives Matter movement and using social justice to flog some fizzy drinks.

Just 24 hours after launching the ad they had to pull it, in the face of fierce public criticism. Pepsi got annihilated by the meme and the pithy tweet, and there were some great ones.

Presumably, the in-house content team at Pepsi looked at the iconic image of Ieshia Evans protesting at Baton Rouge and thought they would work back from that: ‘what’s her story? What’s behind the image? Let’s bring three or four story arcs together in a beautiful, inspiring denouement.’ Faux virtuous crap like that.

Ok, fair enough, but who do you put in the Ieshia Evans role? A talented, up-and-coming young black actress, or a privileged, white super model and author of the dystopian novel classic, Rebels: City of Indra; namely Kendall Jenner? Pepsi went with the latter.

It’s not clear what they are protesting about, but given the jovial, meandering apathy of the crowd, presumably it’s the recent change in the Cadbury’s Crème Egg recipe. Pepsi’s idea of what ‘living for now’ looks like is evidentially two thousand beautiful people out protesting who have absolutely nothing particularly pressing to protest about; ambling along with superior grins as if high on MDMA in the VIP area at the Coachella Festival.

Finally, we have the climax of the ad, when Kendall Jenner diffuses the entire situation by…giving one of the cops a Pepsi. We haven’t seen such a magically potent container of liquid since the glowing phial of starlight Galadriel gave Frodo to ward off that massive spider.

We’ve blogged on signalling before, but there is a massive difference between what Pepsi thought they were saying and what they ended up actually communicating. They created an inauthentic fantasy world, so disconnected from reality, that it is frightening that it ever got signed off.

In fact, the Pepsi advert could well be the best advert for the merits of appointing an agency there has ever been. Of course, agencies can produce bad work too, but if you lock yourself in a room and you think you’re the dog’s bollocks, then you are likely to produce a dog’s dinner. In our ‘6 Fails’ marketing guide, we talk about the importance of delegating, and getting a fresh set of eyes on your brand. We are actually now running branding workshops, so just give us a tinkle if you fancy having a chat on that.

So, what do you need when you’ve created one of the worst ads in history, causing a social media shit storm in the process? Well, how about another global brand to deflect attention from you by physically assaulting one of their customers, have it caught on camera and plastered all over the internet, causing a PR shit tsunami.

Cue United Airlines.

They dragged a 69 year-old doctor from an overbooked flight, leaving him bloodied and disorientated, and the internet got to see it, share it, and indignantly rip into it.

Even putting to one side United Airline’s highly questionable policy and procedure, where they deliberately overbook flights to greedily ensure they don’t have empty seats, and even putting aside their complete ignorance of how nigh on every human being has a phone with a video recorder, their PR response, primarily from the mouth piece of United Airline’s CEO Oscar Muñoz, was horrific.

Their choice of language was awful. Talking of ‘re-accommodating’ the passenger sounds like an Orwellian euphemism from 1984. They called the passenger “disruptive and belligerent”, while justifying the process because it “followed established procedures” indicates a company with such an insular point of view it can only cause mass alienation from the public.

For a company whose brand values are ’We fly right, we fly friendly, we fly together, we fly above and beyond’, they have completely lost focus on who they are, or at least who they communicate they are.

You know you’ve absolutely aced a social media firestorm when your share prices plummet, which is what duly happened to United Airlines.

Both parties, Pepsi and United Airlines, seem to have a couple of things in common; a bloated sense of self-importance, and a myopic view on advertising, marketing and PR. Both are potentially brand reputation damaging.

You wonder to what degree they even have a strategy, which is arguably the most important thing you need in advertising, marketing & PR.

We could talk to you a bit more on that, if you liked.

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