Skip to main content
Ad Campaigns

Pepsi, Heineken, and How Not to Be A Jerk

It’s been said that we’re living in one of the most politically divisive times in recent history. I don’t know how it compares to the civil rights movement or women’s suffrage (since I wasn’t there for the majority of either), but there are some definite cultural barriers that are consuming conversation, breaking relationships and creating movements like none I’ve ever seen in my time on Earth.

The question that I see as a marketer is: do you try to touch on this emotion and risk alienating an entire group of people, or do you simply avoid that risk entirely? It’s a tough choice, since opting for the former is sure to gain attention (or notoriety). Lately, two major advertisers have decided to confront social issues head-on, with some very different results. Let’s analyze them, shall we?

For years, Pepsi has been known for missing the mark, sometimes ending in lawsuits or literally painful results. This time, they’re out of touch to the point of being offensive. I get the logic behind creating this ad – focus on what should resonate with millenials with the following ingredients:

  • One Kardashian (or substitute with one Jenner)
  • One heaping tablespoon of ethnic diversity
  • 6-7 unfriendly or threatening police officers
  • One sprinkle of peaceful protest

The result, however, seems to be one part racial exploitation, one part day rave. Pepsi quickly worked to remove the ad; but alas, the internet never forgets and Twitter never forgives.

On the other end of the spectrum is Heineken, who takes a strong departure from what we expect to see in beer ads.

There are some clear similarities between the two ads: a group of people with different backgrounds and beliefs, a spotlight on potential conflict, and the use of the advertised product as an instrument in the resolution. However, Heineken did what Pepsi didn’t – they focused more on showing vulnerable and relatable people in the ad, letting them tell their stories instead of making them caricatures. They also worked to quickly create a bond between the participants (and in turn, the audience) in a way that is both believable and emotionally gripping. Some quick takeaways from these ads:

  • Race, gender, politics and the environment are pretty serious issues, and should be portrayed as such in order to get the respect of the audience. You don’t have to be depressing about it, but give those issues the weight they deserve.
  • Don’t glorify your product as the answer to the world’s problems. It can be in the audience, but ultimately it’s people that will solve social issues.
  • Social change isn’t pretty, and it sure as hell isn’t a street party. If you’re going to tackle it, you had better add some dynamism to the people delivering the message.

Heineken pulled off a deep dive into some very sensitive territory, and kicked Pepsi’s ass in the process. I hope Pepsi is paying attention. I’m not a Heineken drinker – but to help fund more messaging like this, I might consider it.

Patrick King

Patrick is the Founder of Imagine and advisor to places on brand strategy and creative. His insights have been published in Inc. Magazine, SmartCEO, Washington Business Journal, The Washington Post, and Chief Marketer, among other publications, and shared at conferences throughout the US. He also has an amazing sock collection.

© 2004-2023, Imagine. All rights reserved, whatever that means...