It was about six months after the 2016 election and tensions were high.
The record-setting protests around Donald Trump’s inauguration were followed by rapid response activism in the wake of his sudden travel ban on Muslim-majority countries. Recent protests against racist police brutality, the Flint water crisis, and the oil pipeline through Standing Rock had caught national attention, but remained relatively fringe causes. Protesting against Trump, however, quickly became a mainstream activity.
The hashtag-Resistance was commodifiable, and Pepsi was the first brand that attempted to cash in.
The Hertz of soda companies created an anodyne ad in which a multicultural coalition protesting nothing in particular finds a hero in Kendall Jenner, who bravely hands a hot cop a cold drink and thereby solves racism.
It was a cloying appeal to fashionably woke millennials and a colossal failure of an ad, not just widely mocked but straight-up vilified. People hated the idea of the ad, they hated the cynical sentiment behind it, and they hated the beyond-parody execution. After a pronounced backlash, Kendall Jenner tearfully apologized for her involvement, and Pepsi pulled the spot. Indeed, the company so thoroughly scrubbed the embarrassing piece of content from the internet that it’s now difficult to find online in its entirety. (But please “enjoy” the clip below.)
So, have brands learned anything in the three years since the Pepsi debacle? The initial response to the Black Lives Matter uprising following George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer last week suggests some of them have.
Here’s a smattering of brands outright supporting Black Lives Matter in the last week.
To be silent is to be complicit.
Black lives matter.
We have a platform, and we have a duty to our Black members, employees, creators and talent to speak up.
— Netflix (@netflix) May 30, 2020
— Marvel Studios (@MarvelStudios) May 31, 2020
This is a painful time for our country and for us. The events going on around all of us are heartbreaking and we want to share a few thoughts with you in this open letter to our employees. Pete & Erik Nordstrom https://t.co/X2FLobAq9n#BlackLivesMatter #NspireChange pic.twitter.com/Y0CQPpP5eu
— Nordstrom (@Nordstrom) May 31, 2020
In addition to putting out statements on Twitter, where Twitter’s own account has added #BlackLivesMatter to its bio, some brands have found further ways to offer solidarity with the cause. YouTube pledged $1M to address social injustice. Nike released a “Don’t Do It” ad on Instagram, inverting its ubiquitous catchphrase into a message about racism. The gay dating app Grindr backed up its supportive tweet with a pledge to eliminate its ethnic filter options, which were questionable in the first place. And Viacom aired an ad that is 8:46 in duration, the amount of time Officer Chauvin kept his knee on George Floyd’s neck before he died.
These aren’t naked attempts to piggyback on the energy and enthusiasm of the Black Lives Matter movement. They are statements of values and purpose, lines in the sand, and invitations for the All Lives Matter crowd to boycott. It’s a calculated risk to take a visible stand during volatile times, but it’s not without precedent.
Nike led the way in 2018 by choosing as its spokesperson Colin Kaepernick, who martyred his football career to protest anti-black police violence, and not only weathered the storm of controversy but emerged more popular (and lucrative) than ever. The following year, Gillette gave wokeness a shot with an ad condemning toxic masculinity, thumbing its nose at detractors, and got a big win out of it. Obviously, these brands aren’t heroic for stirring up the pot and reaping the benefits, but they did prove that it makes both moral and fiscal sense in a heated political climate to explicitly choose a side.
Both ads were a far cry from Pepsi cravenly donning utopian protest cosplay for a meaningless selfie.
However, some brands have missed the broader point surrounding Pepsi’s epic miscalculation. Activism means more than empty posturing, it means actively doing the work. If a brand’s house is not in order, people should, will, and do call them out on making overtures toward solidarity.
Here are some brands that have gotten dunked on more than they’ve been applauded in recent days.
few companies have done as much to promote widespread racist paranoia in recent years as this one https://t.co/ikeVgmOEsu
— Sam Biddle (@samfbiddle) June 1, 2020
And don't forget to catch FBI, FBI: Most Wanted, NCIS, NCIS: Los Angeles, NCIS: New Orleans, Hawaii Five-0, Criminal Minds, Magnum P.I., Blue Bloods, and S.W.A.T. — all part of the CBS Crimetime Primetime lineup! Check local listings. https://t.co/R8LI3j8kHt
— Osita Nwanevu (@OsitaNwanevu) May 31, 2020
Excuse my language but I am SO angry. FUCK YOU @lorealparis. You dropped me from a campaign in 2017 and threw me to the wolves for speaking out about racism and white supremacy. With no duty of care, without a second thought. pic.twitter.com/nnBfiP5Oqg
— Black Lives Matter ✊???? (@MunroeBergdorf) June 1, 2020
— michael mann enthusiast (@aryantauqeerk) June 1, 2020
“There is no tolerance for racism,” says the team with that logo. https://t.co/bJHYEHgDrU
— Jesse Spector (@jessespector) June 1, 2020
The most important lesson for brands when it comes to choosing sides in a moment of social upheaval is that this is a reckoning, not a bandwagon. You can’t pick a side if it’s not a side you’re demonstrably already on.