Pepsi: The Next Generation … of Cultural Appropriators

Brands have a long tradition of exploiting social-justice movements to hock their products—but do their campaigns undermine activists' power?

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Pepsi recently sparked an uproar after it aired an ad that has been since branded a tone-deaf mockery of civil rights activism. The creative effort featured Kendall Jenner, who “saved the day” and warded off police violence by simply giving a Pepsi to an officer dressed in riot gear. The ad’s imagery referenced the “iconic” protest photo that came out of Baton Rouge in which a young Black woman, wearing a dress and holding a cell phone, bravely faced off two militarized cops in riot gear during protests that broke out after the police fatally shot Alton Sterling.

Many writers took to social media and other outlets to express their outrage that the ad trivialized Black Lives Matter and police brutality.


The ad was also skewered by SNL who attempted to answer the pertinent question of how the offensive work was even made. Within hours of the outcry, Pepsi pulled the commercial and offered an apology:

“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace, and understanding,” the company wrote in a statement. “Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”

The public was appeased, even though many eyes were rolled at the company’s apology to Kendall Jenner whose family is known for profiteering from Black culture. Nevertheless, one less offensive media effort made it to the mainstream and the co-opting of today’s civil rights movement was thwarted.

Despite this victory for social activism fighting against scheming corporations looking to profit from Black activism, this generation of social and political activists should remain on guard. Though many caught onto this poorly executed attempt at appropriation and trivialization of a movement, history tells us that time immemorial, the very demographic most likely to fight inequality with social, political, and counterculture movements fall victim to clandestine public relations and marketing efforts that completely undermine their efforts. Forces are constantly at work to turn empowerment into oppression.

Edward Bernays, also known as the father of “public relations” (a euphemism for propaganda, as he openly admitted), most successfully employed this tactic in his 1920s public relations ploy which was designed to drive thousands of women to pick up smoking—a habit that would prove to be deadly in the decades to come. Big tobacco companies realized women were a huge, untapped demographic from whom they could profit. However they’d have to drastically change the public’s perception of smoking, which was, at the time, a social taboo for women.  

So Bernays sought the advice of psychoanalyst A. A. Brill, who claimed that it was normal for women to smoke, as it was for men, because it was an oral fixation. Brill cast it as an act of liberation and gender equity: “Today the emancipation of women has suppressed many of their feminine desires. More women now do the same work as men do. Many women bear no children; those who do bear have fewer children. Feminine traits are masked. Cigarettes, which are equated with men, become torches of freedom.”

Taking his cue from psychoanalysis, Bernays hatched a grand scheme, hiring debutantes to walk through the very public Easter Sunday parade of 1929, long, luxurious-looking cigarettes— torches of freedom—in hand. Sales skyrocketed. Seemingly overnight, women became steady consumers of tobacco. And just like that, feminism was hijacked to promote the agenda of rich, powerful men—an agenda that would ultimately lead to the death of hundreds of thousands from smoking-related illnesses in years to come.

This would not be the first nor the last time the feminist movement would be successfully undermined in the capitalist interests of rich, powerful men.

It may surprise many to know that the “We Can Do It!” Rosie the Riveter image, featuring a woman flexing her muscles while wearing a head tie and traditional male clothing was produced by a man more interested in aiding and abetting the exploitation of women workers than advocating for women’s empowerment or their right to work. J. Howard Miller created the poster in 1943, for Westinghouse Electric, in an advertising series meant to boost employee morale who were overworked, grossly underpaid, and mostly female.

During World War II, women occupied jobs in factories because the war increased the demand for the production of war goods while many men were off in the battlefields. There may have been stirrings for women’s rights at the time, but mostly women were occupying this traditionally male role in society out of need. Not surprisingly, they were paid less than half of a man’s wages—and no sooner did the war end and the men return home, then women were pushed right out of their factory jobs and their newly found financial independence, and right back into the home. The image was later adopted by the feminist movement, but its original purpose actually helped to perpetutate the exploitation and oppression of women.

However, movements whose objective was to empower women were not the only ones to be co-opted and exploited by the powerful.

The counterculture movement of the 1960s and ’70s bring to mind peace-seeking hippies who fought against the Vietnam War and for saving the environment, while promoting self-expression, love, and acceptance. What we seldom associate with this socio-political movement is the the explosion of mass consumer culture.

During this time, pop psychology promoted the idea of personal transformation, that the self should be more important than one’s adherence to society. Artists like Bob Dylan embraced the ideology, influencing Americans to follow suit. A brand new focus on individuality meant many came to understand that the were not defined by their place in society, but by their individual choices—a vulnerability that became easy to exploit.

Agencies were hired by corporations to study the volatile generation whose buying habits were nothing like their parents who sought sturdy products to last and were okay with driving the same car as their neighbor. They recognized the generation as consumers who wanted products to express their individuality, not tie them to the status quo. At the advent of technology that made mass-customization a reality, a new consumer class was born. Manufacturers quickly produced customized goods including cars, clothes, and other products and the generation ate it up. “Flower people,” best characterized by their idolization of self-expression and their kinship with the environment, became the planet’s biggest enemy, producing tons of waste and promoting a culture of overconsumption driven by individuality.

Cultural movements launched by minorities were also fair game for profiteers.

Hip-hop originated in the Bronx in the 1970s, and began as a cultural revolution. Block parties were thrown where amplifiers were plugged into street lamp posts so performers could put on shows where beatboxing, rapping, breakdancing, and hip-hop style were born. Before the genre became a mainstream success, the underground artistic movement broke down barriers between Black people and Latinos within the community. However, by the 1980s, it was commercialized, catapulted into the public consciousness and used not only to divide communities, but promote misogyny, violence, gang culture, and drug use.

“Hip-hop isn’t just music, it is also a spiritual movement of the Blacks!” Lauryn Hill explained. “You can’t just call hip-hop a trend!”

Music industry executives recognized that they could capitalize on the popularity and success of gangsta rap by marketing it to a brand new demographic worth millions: white men. So the music became less about community and more about glorifying hypermasculinity and violence. When asked about his lyrics and the image of gangster rap, Snoop Dogg told MTV, “Sex and violence sells, ask Al Pacino.”

Though the exact opposite was true (rap sales actually declined at the time), the commodification and commercialization of hip-hop would leave an indelible mark on the Black community and even the public’s perception of Black people and Black culture. A movement meant to empower and bring together marginalized people would eventually lead to their stereotyping, misrepresentation and ultimately oppression.

In truth, the biggest take away from the Pepsi debacle should not simply be that it was insensitive or offensive, but that it is a reminder of the many ways our movements can be appropriated and commodified, rendered into little more than a marketing tool by advertisers. And when that happens, when a simulacra of a civil-rights movement like Black Lives Matter or the women’s movement is being used to sell a product, it loses its meaning, to the betterment of the rich and powerful. This generation should never forget that—as these young people get increasingly involved in activism or counterculture—insidious, oppressive forces eagerly await the opportunity to make a money off the resistance by using their image to sell their product, in hopes that they appeal to those very people. And often, the marketers are part of the same oppressive class disenfranchising those the activists are fighting for and alongside. It’s a vicious cycle.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society,” explained Bernays. “Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country … We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society…. In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons… who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Pepsi may have failed in suggesting to us that it is the soda that represents our generation of progressives and freedom fighters, but that does not mean another entity or corporation cannot succeed where it failed. The fight for civil rights and progressivism will not only be fought in the streets with protests but also in a war on the turf of our collective psyche.


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