Monday, May 8, 2017

Double Bind Taste Test: On the Music in THAT Pepsi Ad

By Joanna Love

Pepsi just did it again.

Almost thirty years after sending shock waves through religious communities and leaving the advertising industry reeling from a commercial that featured loaded political symbols and a female protagonist famous for challenging the status quo, the soda giant has again ignited controversy by airing another pop-music themed spot that highlights hot-button issues. On April 3rd, 2017 Pepsi released a global YouTube commercial called “Jump in” featuring Skip Marley’s new single, “Lions,” and reality star-turned-model Kendall Jenner. 

As the outrage and ridicule spread, those in Pepsi’s marketing division with long memories might have experienced a sudden flashback to the backlash that erupted after they failed to view Madonna’s incendiary “Like a Prayer” music video—ironically, the very text whose street cred the commercial aimed to steal—before releasing its own “Make A Wish” [a bland and vaguely autobiographical long-form spot in which Madonna’s musical track, presented in full, prompted the brand to create a its own (albeit slightly more subtle) fable of racial and religious tolerance as her video]. This time, though, Pepsi’s in-house marketers should not have been caught unaware, since they themselves were complicit in stirring up high-pressure social issues in an effort to appeal to the coveted 18-24 year old demographic.

Despite its topical veneer, the new spot’s subtext is strikingly reminiscent of Madonna’s commercial-as-music-video, assembling its capitalist realist narrative from a barrage of politically-charged cut scenes that, in the end, all find resolution through commodity intervention. Pepsi used “Lions” and Jenner’s celebrity status to put its brand at the center of a fictional re-creation of recent standoffs between police forces and protesters of various (stereotyped) ethnicities, genders, and religions. At the denouement, marketers swapped concerned faces, rallying cries, and arrests for smiles, cheers, and hugs triggered by a police officer’s acceptance of a carbonated peace offering from Jenner. The spot has been endlessly picked apart in on social sites and in the media for its trite resolution of pressing social issues—especially discrimination based on race, religion, immigration status, gender, and sexuality. Some have compared it to Coca-Cola’s co-opting of peaceful countercultural intentions in its 1971 “Hilltop” commercial. But while “Hilltop” did try to filter the counterculture’s message down to the earnest desire to “Teach the World to Sing,” the spot’s portrayal of quiescent multi-racial youth lip-syncing on an Italian hillside wisely avoided providing fantasy resolution to the chaos of the Vietnam war protests and social tensions of the early 1970s.  The general sense has been that Pepsi’s version, with its whitewashed trivialization of tense scenarios lifted from Black Lives Matter protests, crosses the line into disrespect.

Viewers responded with memes that mock “Jump in,” and some have even inserted Pepsi cans into famous pictures of civil rights protests.  The cast of Saturday Night Live joined in on the shaming, performing a skit that highlighted the shortsightedness of the spot’s attempt to represent diversity. The onslaught of bad press condemned “Jump in” to the same fate as Madonna’s 1989 “Make A Wish”: After releasing multiple statements explaining its intent, Pepsi, facing rising anger and threats of boycott, pulled the spot after less than 48 hours.

While the controversy around the ad’s imagery has registered substantial criticism, less attention has been paid to Marley’s song. There are a number of reasons for this, most obviously that Jenner’s complex image and the confusing onscreen scenarios that surround her demand focused attention. But one might well point out the precarious situation in which the brand has placed Marley and his track. Two comments in particular highlight this. Bazaar Magazine praised “Lions” as the spot’s one redeeming factor.  But Rolling Stone takes the opposite position, noting Marley’s ability to tap into the cultural moment and then admonishing him for selling it to a multinational corporate brand that epitomizes everything his song proposes to fight against. Getting past the ideological arguments about “selling out” that these articles raise, their competing points of view emphasize real tensions between this music’s potential political activism and the underlying motivation for its placement in the commercial. 

The messages in Marley’s song and the musical styles he uses to communicate them resonate well with the young, marginalized, and politically progressive millennials that the brand targeted. (There’s a reason posters of Bob Marley still adorn many campus dorm room walls.) Prior to the campaign’s airdate, Marley claimed he was excited when the soda giant approached him, since he believed that his song’s call for unity, inspired of course by his iconic grandfather, fit the brand’s (supposed) socially progressive vision. Pepsi’s marketers were obviously keen to realize the song’s potential to attract consumers, which is not surprising considering that the soda giant has almost eighty years of experience in using pre-existing popular tunes for its commercials, during many of which the brand has also used celebrities to help its appeal to youth Since the mid-1980s, Pepsi has also been in the business of featuring the latest hits from new and upcoming artists. Who could blame Marley for wanting to join the ranks of musical icons like Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Beyoncé? With Pepsi’s experience and Marley’s tune, this arrangement should have worked perfectly.

But as advertising scholars like Judith Williamson, Michael Schudson, and Sut Jhally have long warned, ads co-opt and redirect familiar signifiers to create new messages on the terms of the brand. Consequently, it is not surprising that brand exploits “Lion’s” lyrical content, which describes the irrepressible, spirit of “this generation,” and appropriates it to fit the “Pepsi Generation” mantra it had invented back in 1963 with its “Come Alive” campaign.  This becomes evident when the commercial zooms in on Pepsi cans and bottles during Marley’s soulful call to recognize the activist possibilities of his generation. These images effectively overwhelm the lyrics to identify and prioritize the status of the millennials onscreen as ideal cola consumers.

The spot further borrows the barely-veiled lyrics from Marley’s first verse and pre-chorus, namely his allusion to the outcome of the 2016 election—“Some said ‘never’ but then never done come”—and hate crimes and police brutality—“If ya took all my rights away/…If ya tellin’ me how to pray/…If ya won’t let us demonstrate/You’re wrong.” If used properly, these lines might have packed a considerable political punch. However, these stanzas meet the same fate as the key words appropriated from the chorus, and they are diffused by the banal images of Jenner modeling and the poorly executed onscreen portrayals of “diversity” derided by the SNL skit.

Marley’s mixture of assorted chart-topping musical styles taps into the omnivorous aesthetics of the millennial generation, and is also important for communicating his message. The clips transferred into the commercial include the song’s quiet introduction featuring broken guitar chords and solo singing, its reggae-style rapped pre-chorus, and the gradual layering of electronics and production elements that lead to an EDM-style drop during one of the chorus repetitions. The juxtaposition of these elements sometimes work to create the song’s tension and at other times come together in unexpected yet pleasing ways to support Marley’s anthemic call for resistance. Of course, these musical moments are translated into “Jump in” on the terms of its plot to support the scenes that set up the commodity’s final shining moment. In particular, “Lion’s” climactic drop is assigned to images of Jenner and sets into motion her decision to abandon the façade of the modeling studio for the “real” action outside. Marley’s uplifting call for change thus becomes Jenner’s call for commodity intervention.

A talented musician, the twenty-year old scion of a beloved Jamaican political family has the cultural capital to communicate the ethos of resistance in a way that a reality star and a corporate giant pushing soda could not. Marketers thus quickly found out that the very audiences that they sought to capture with Marley’s music would not accept the brand’s attempt to neutralize their hard fought efforts to stand up to oppressive forces. This deal therefore serves as a reminder of the double bind that traps us within late-capitalist conditions. As Mark Laver suggests, the pressure put on Pepsi to pull the spot reflects the power of today’s social media and might suggest the potential for marginalized forces to form effective resistance to hegemonic forces.  At the same time, it illuminates the reality that today’s artists must rely on these very same forces in order to build their own brands for survival. It is this paradox, created by decades of neoliberal policies and ideologies, that allows for a simultaneous critique of the billion-dollar brand while recognizing (and generally accepting) the necessity for Marley to take the opportunity Pepsi had offered. So while there has been considerable outrage and resistance to Pepsi’s politics, few have questioned its voracious appetite for musical signifiers of youth and social progress.

Following its debacle with Madonna, Pepsi re-strategized how it used new music and celebrities and many of its early-1990s commercials turned back to hard-sell approaches. It will be interesting to see how the outcomes of this recent campaign force the cola giant to re-think future efforts to connect with today’s youth. In some respects, it makes sense that Pepsi, an underdog brand that has frequently catered to groups marginalized by economic status, age, race, gender, and sexuality, would continue its claims to support them. Based on its own history however, executives should have known that corporate advertising must continue to walk a fine line between reality and fantasy to retain its refreshing neoliberal façade. If nothing else, marketers should have remembered that political topics are as off-limits to corporate advertising as they are for dinners with extended family members.

Joanna Love is Assistant Professor of Music at the University of Richmond and she is currently finishing her book on popular music in Pepsi advertising, which is supported by a generous grant from the American Association of University Women.



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  3. I am amazed that musicology would apply so much intellectualization to a subject so trite and vacuous as pop music, and especially as found in Pepsi commercials. Aside from the toxic advertised product (of high-fructose corn syrup that promotes obesity and diabetes and many other chronic diseases of western civilization), the music itself is not serious, and unworthy of study except perhaps as television programs and other silliness are analyzed by academics who might sell books but contribute nothing to the deeper life of our culture, that has mostly been exiled to the edges and to "counter-cultures" of "monastic solutions" that will hopefully preserve the deeper aesthetics and values of our heritage for a future when "the public" might shift towards a hunger for seriousness and depth and an interiority not found in metronomic drum machines and bling-costumed pop singers.