Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi's Lame Talk Underscores TED's Awkward Adventures in Advertising

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You've heard about the lovely and amazing, now let's hear about the duds of TED.

"Only 5% of TED Talks have been given by CEOs," Pepsi chief Indra Nooyi observed from the stage at TED, before going on to demonstrate why. Her bland recitation of the accomplishments of Pepsi Refresh, a decent, though hardly groundbreaking corporate social responsibility program, had some attendees wondering if it was a paid product placement. That’s why I was surprised to hear Chris Anderson, TED’s director, single Nooyi’s talk out for special attention at a lunch for journalists as both a great talk and a stellar example of corporate communication.

The discordant note is an example of TED’s at times uneasy relationship to corporate sponsorship as the nonprofit organization pursues its future as a global media brand focused on learning and social change. While product demos, especially of new technology, have always been part of TED, there were many who felt that the balance of corporate voices was off this year.

"There were four talks about cars [Bill Ford and Christina Lampe-Ommerud, whose company makes electric car batteries, as well as Dennis Hong's car for the blind and Google's self-driving car], and two car commercials," shown during TED, said Alex Steffen, author of Worldchanging and a longtime TEDster. "There were no talks by people who directly engaged the science of or solutions to climate change, or who pointed out that transportation is the single largest contributor to the problem."

TED Talks now have over 400 million views, and the self-organized TEDx program has gone viral, with over 1,800 events taking place around the world. Initiatives such as TED Conversations, a set of new social tools on, TED ED, a new education site, and the $100,000 TED prize require significant corporate sponsorship. One attempt to respond to this increasing involvement with sponsorship is the "Ads Worth Spreading" contest, wherein TED asked companies to create long-form video ads that were good enough to share.

"To make a difference in this world, you have to engage corporations," Chris Anderson told the press. "We want to change how corporations talk to us—they should talk to us like adults." While many of the commercials, which were shown to TED’s paying audience, were funny, heartwarming or inspiring, it remains unclear, at least to me, how commissioning more appealing ads relates to TED’s core mission, or how it will really elevate the conversation.

[Image: TED Conference on Flickr]

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  • Scott Lewis

    I enjoyed Indra's talk. I think it is amazing to see, not just new ideas, but ideas that have been executed recently. She was overly defensive at first, which was a little lame, but her idea was great.

    How many big companies are sacrificing traditional advertising to make more effort within the communities of their customers? I don't know of many, but Pepsi is clearly one of them, even if they sell mostly sugar water.

    Ford's talk was way lamer than hers. All he talked about was the problem. Global gridlock. Thanks for nothing.

  • Matt Kischer

    Can you name another program besides Pepsi Refresh that speaks to the population's core values and has as much of a reach?

    Calling it "hardly groundbreaking" severely underscores that the company made this program and programs within its other brands the primary focus. After you come up empty in trying to find a comparison please note that I am aware that branding and marketing clearly make you feel uncomfortable in the context of doing good.

    It's OK, but if you wanted to take Pepsi and Microsoft and Car companies out of TED...well then you just embraced Davos, which is awesome..but trust me TED isn't even in the same realm as Davos.