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Power of #Pepsi: Advertising, Meet Crisis Management

April 12th, 2017   ||    by Melanie Brown   ||    No Comments

When a brand missteps—whether as the result of an ill-conceived ad or a sexual harassment scandal—advertisers and marketers are faced with crucial crisis management decisions. Plus, today’s culture of social media sharing and viral stories means that the public is aware of issues as soon as they develop. Not only that, they talk about them (often) and usually demand action.

Two such situations recently struck the advertising industry, prompting marketers and brands to take a step back to consider their positions on current sociocultural issues. It’s relatively straightforward for an individual to have opinions on topics like racism, sexual harassment, or police brutality—but that’s not always the case for large corporations.

Trouble with ‘Tone-Deafness’

Last week, Pepsi pulled a two-and-a-half-minute spot that they hoped would encourage equality and social harmony, but ended up falling miles short of its mark. Starring supermodel and reality-TV star Kendall Jenner, the ad cuts between Jenner being photographed, a young cellist practicing (while drinking Pepsi), and a photographer studying her negatives—interspersed with scenes of a vague protest that catches their attention.

While the soft drink company might have meant well with its watered-down, idealistic depiction of social activism, its execution drew the ire of many real-world activist groups and public figures. One of the most unforgiving public reactions came on Twitter from Bernice King, the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who lamented the fact that her father hadn’t “known about the power of #Pepsi.” Pepsi’s attempt to play it safe and promote “peace” ended up trivializing the very social issues on which it wanted to comment.

These are multifaceted issues, addressable from a plethora of different perspectives. A brand’s audience is often comprised of people from all walks of life—and all points of view. The challenge for advertisers becomes one of making a statement on social issues that are important to their audience, while also preserving their brand’s standing. As Pepsi and numerous advertisers before it have proven, this is something easier said than done.

I’m (Not) with Him

Brands also are affected by the content from where they choose to place their ads. Media buying decisions can resonate with audiences just as much as the creative message itself, and crisis management often includes pulling spots from content that might offend audiences.

Last week, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly lost dozens of advertisers from his show after multiple sexual harassment claims—from women who either worked for or contributed to the network—came to light. According to the New York Times, advertisers from a wide array of industries have pulled their spots from O’Reilly’s show, lest they be seen as supporting him during the scandal.

The advertiser’s strategy here isn’t so much about making a statement as refraining from one. By removing their ad spend from O’Reilly’s program, advertisers avoid the risk that audiences will assume they implicitly support a man accused of sexual harrasment. Such a perception could alienate a significant portion of their audience, so brands must decide whether they want to risk that perception by keeping an ad in place when a scandal hits.

The bottom line? Advertising today isn’t just about selling a product. Though that end goal still holds, brands also have to factor their social and political conduct into marketing decisions, making the act of doing business much more complex.

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