I am sure by now you have heard about the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad, and the controversy surrounding it. If you haven’t, please go watch it. It’s the sort of arrogance that needs to be seen to believed. Everything from Kendall Jenner shoving her blond wig into the arms of an African American protester without even looking at them to her being applauded for using a can of pepsi to bridge the divide between the protesters and the police, is deeply offensive.
Pepsi! Why didn’t Eric Gardner think of that?
I am not interested in breaking down why this ad is so damn offensive. Others have already done so effectively here, here, and here. Instead, I want to use this example to illustrate why corporations’ co-opting of radical symbolism can be so damning to activist movements, and how their involvement is often counter-revolutionary.
As others have already noted, Kendall handing her Pepsi over to an extra playing a police officer is very similar to the photo of protester Ieshia Evans calmly offering her hands over to a pair of riot-gear-clad police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The first place winner of its category at the 2017 World Press Photo Contest, this photo is so iconic that it's hard to believe that the commercial’s creators didn't intend to reference it directly
People are understandably pissed because Pepsi is referencing a raw (still controversial) period in our history while simultaneously stripping that moment of its emotional and historical context. In this corporate retelling of the Black Lives Matter movement, all slogans are safely apolitical (“Join the conversation!”) and the difference between protesters and police officers can be resolved with a small, benign act of boardroom-approved kindness.
Companies Whitewash activism all the time
Pepsi is not alone in its desire to co-opt protest language for branding purposes. In political science, this phenomenon of twisting radical ideas so they can be commodified is sometimes referred to as “recuperation,” and boy, do companies love to recuperate political concepts.
Dove’s brand image and bottom line have benefitted greatly from the manipulation of the concept of female self-empowerment, by telling women to love their bodies via buying Dove products.
Nike made a splash in 1995 using a marathon-runner’s HIV-status to promote its bootstrapping “Just Do It” tagline.
Lumber 84 released a controversial, seemingly pro-immigration Super Bowl commercial, only for their CEO Maggie Hardy Magerko to later clarify that Trump’s border wall “is a need.”
This is what advertising, and arguably capitalism, does. It takes advantage of the things that you love in order to sell you unrelated products. It was Walt Disney who said that “People spend money when and where they feel good.” Advertisers are, in essence, manipulating your emotions to prompt you into making irrational decisions.
How far can we trust companies to advance causes that interfere with their ability to sell you products and make money?
There are certainly a wide array of nonprofits and politicians that would argue that you can, and work closely with businesses for the “greater good.”
Organizations like Conservation International have collaborated with companies to reduce their overall impact on the environment. The National Diversity Council does the same for diversity in the workplace. From GE’s Ecomagination initiative to Wells Fargo’s green business financing program, there are plenty of examples of businesses grabbing low-hanging fruit beneficial to progressive causes.
There are, of course, also companies that are founded by socially responsible people - Ben & Jerry’s comes immediately to mind - but once the company is sold, or when a new generation takes the helm, they are in no way beholden to those same principles. For example, Ben & Jerry’s was sold in 2000 to Unilever. This year, dairy workers boycotted Free Cone Day because of the low-pay and long-hour days that many migrant dairy farmers now endure.
change requires more than economic self-interest
Many of the issues we face are systemically ingrained in our culture. To change them, would require a serious effort that transcends a corporate seminar on diversity or an opt-in recycling plan. Bobbi S. Low and Matt Ridley wrote in The Atlantic about the environmental movement’s failure to create long-lasting change:
“BIOLOGISTS and economists agree that cooperation cannot be taken for granted...To save the environment, therefore, we will have to find a way to reward individuals for good behavior and punish them for bad. Exhorting them to self sacrifice for the sake of "humanity" or "the earth" will not be enough.”
In short, people won’t make the necessary changes to right systemic problems unless we restructure incentives so it's in their best interest to do so. Why would this be any different for corporations? Is there some link corporations have to altruism that science has been hiding from us?
A corporation's stated goal isn’t to save the environment, or resolve historic inequalities. It’s to make money. When corporations use the imagery of activism it's primarily to sell us an unrelated product like a can of Pepsi. They “care” about us only insofar as your purchasing decisions can benefit their bottom line. They are beholden to their shareholders -- not to us.
This is why I am skeptical of activist-corporate partnerships achieving anything beyond low-hanging fruit. We cannot expect a company like Pepsi to give a shit about socially progressive causes in any other context but profitability (looking at you Pride).
We as activists must be firm in making sure that our movement is not diluted by corporate window-shopping, and that our will to act directly isn’t usurped by the desire to watch the latest, binge-worthy Netflix show on the prison-industrial complex that you just have to see.