On April 4, a day that both marks the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and the celebration of Maya Angelou’s life, beverage juggernaut Pepsi decided to monetize social justice movements.
In their new ad titled “Live For Now Moments Anthem,” which features model Kendall Jenner, Pepsi capitalized on protest by centering the Kardashian sister as a carefree civil rights activist of sorts, who ultimately scores a win for humanity when she offers a police officer a cold soda.
In the now viral clip, soundtracked by Skip Marley’s “Lions,” the runway regular is working a photoshoot when she catches the eye of a cello-totin’ man in the middle of a march. Inspired by the scene — and suddenly woke — Jenner changes out of her outfit, removes a blonde wig, pushes it in the hands of a Black woman and cheerfully joins the crowd as it approaches a line of police officers.
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She swipes a Pepsi, walks toward the line, and hands an officer the soda. The man smiles. The people roar. And whatever injustice the crowd opposes, a gathering nearly void of Black women, is solved. The scene is familiar — we watched Ieshia Evans, activist and mother, do a similar thing during a demonstration in Baton Rouge to protest the police killing of Alton Sterling last year.
But there are stark differences.
Evans didn’t have a Pepsi to solve the ills of the world. There were no smiles. And quite frankly, her actual life was on the line. What we know, based on the history of protest and the militarization of law enforcement, is that this exchange between Jenner and the cop is far from accurate, and far more dangerous than it appears in the feel-good commercial to sell soda.
This is the core issue with Pepsi’s attempt to share a message of unity with the world. In a statement released Tuesday, the beverage company stood by their decision to co-opt the real work being done to protect people of color in this country, seemingly satisfied with using imagery and experiences from those opposing the current political climate and the Black Lives Matter movement as a whole.
“This is a global ad that reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony, and we think that’s an important message to convey,” the company told AdWeek.
Problem is, the “people from different walks of life” excludes a group essential to protest and social change in this country’s history — Black women.
The added blow of appropriating a movement, trivializing it with a white model and inaccurately depicting a docile police line sans shields, tear gas and Lenco armored trucks is the absence of Black women in the protest. Especially when the take-away image of the ad is one of Jenner positioning herself in a way that mirrors the now iconic photo of Evans. It essentially erases Evans from the narrative, diminishes the injustice behind the action and tells America that it’s still fine to profit from Black stories and Black pain. The only other identifiable image of a Black women is the one doting over Jenner as she prepares for her shoot — a Black actress who is then simply discarded by the model when she thrusts her blonde wig in her face.
Her position of service is not lost on us.
Furthermore, if we know anything about protest in this country, it’s that Black women have historically been at the helm of nearly all civil rights and social movements that afford us the rights we have today. To erase them from this narrative is violent and deliberate in a way that doesn’t present this as an accident.
A lot of people gave this ad the green light.
It’s time other companies learn from Pepsi’s mistake — co-opting resistance movements is not trendy. It won’t sell soda. And it’s not cute. For many, the images this ad steal were a matter of life and death. And where’s the “harmony” in that?