What the Pepsi advert reaction reveals about modern day protest

By Joshua Preston

The art of good advertising is being discreet; persuading unconscious audiences that they aren’t being brainwashed when they actually are. Pepsi’s latest advertisement, quickly canned, has been ripped to shreds, accused by Esquire of “thoughtlessness, and perverse in its attempt to use the fear and suffering of Americans to sell soda.” Kendall Jenner, top of the celebrity tree, has been condemned for her cringe-worthy involvement.

It was all very ‘naff.’ Placards were bandied around by unusually attractive protesters, adorned with slogans like “conversation” and “voice.” It reminded me of something Russell Howard said on Romesh: Comedians In Pubs Talking Comedy: “It’s really easy to take the piss out of bigotry in a comedy club, it’s the easiest thing in the world. But if you take the piss out of idiotic liberalism, it’s so difficult…But if you can crack it, it’s amazing.” He cites, amongst the sincerity of the women’s march that “Some…rocked up just with pictures of unicorns, that’s…moronic.” In fact, ditch the cans, and it’s easy to imagine the ad as a sketch on Howard’s Good News. They’ve inadvertently found a new vein of comedy gold.

Pepsi didn’t mean to ‘take the piss.’ This wasn’t a sketch that belittled the actions of people exercising their democratic right to protest in a free, open country. They were on the same side as their critics, regardless of whether their motives aligned with the people waving slogans, or whether they wanted a comfy ride on the bandwagon of youthful discontent. They were just trying to shift a few cans.

Yet people didn’t seem to take it this way. It revealed, above all, a self-defensiveness; as if Kendall Jenner batting her eyes and striking poses simultaneously undermined their own causes. It’s an attitude of excessive self-pride; that they cannot be laughed at (because that’s ultimately the unintended effect of the advert). It was so bad it was funny; it made a joke of mass demonstrations that up till now no one either had the courage or the inclination to challenge.

Youth protest is ripe for satire. Excluding the enthusiasm of a committed few, how many protesters are there for the issue? How many of those that went from Durham to Newcastle for the anti-Trump rally wanted a nice Instagram photo and a Maccy’s just as much as they wanted to show their disgust for a democratically elected leader of a foreign country? It’s easy to sign an ePetition, but you notice now that the clamour has petered into a diminishing din. It’s Pixel Protest, with a lack of any real sincerity. And why can’t people point this out?

Being able to laugh at yourself is the surest sign that you have confidence in what you are saying. By not taking yourself seriously, you stand immune to criticism that seeks to undermine. What this failed advertising scheme showed, via the vitriolic reaction it received, was that activists are increasingly too self-absorbed in themselves. If they cared about their issues, they wouldn’t have the time nor inclination to complain so fervently against something so innocuous.

Photograph: Mike Mozart via Flickr.

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