Pepsi's Greatest Show on Earth

April 21, 2017 | By: Adnan Muhammad | 4 min read

“I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, etc., to attract attention to a show; but I never believed that any amount of advertising or energy would make a spurious article permanently successful.”

- P.T. Barnum, private letter, 1860


PepsiRead any account of P.T. Barnum, the 19th-century founder of “Barnum and Bailey Circus” and you’ll find yourself with a bit of a conundrum.


On one hand, he was the original consummate showman – realizing that we find entertainment in the unknown, the unexplainable. He spent his early days entertaining crowds with the Feejee Mermaid, which he claimed was a creature with the head of a monkey and the body of a fish. He’d later go on to touring with a woman he claimed to be George Washington’s nurse, who was purported to be 160 years old.


Both would turn out to be hoaxes, but that didn’t really matter. He had already collected money from the masses who stopped to say, “Wait, what!?”


The man was called many things: a con, a trickster, a snake oil salesman. Yet he had another side. Barnum was devoutly religious, strongly spoke out against slavery, and supported temperance.


That’s why it’s kind of tricky to interpret his legacy: here’s a character with strong moral convictions, who also saw no problem duping the public for a buck. Should he be regarded as a fraud, or a pious tradesman, or is there something in between?


One early Tuesday in April 2017, Pepsi debuted a commercial featuring Kendall Jenner. I immediately thought it was a lame millennial take on the Coca-Cola “Hilltop” ad. But that’s the furthest I’ll go attempting to explain the content itself. I’m more interested in the mechanics behind the reaction.


The general opinion seems to be that the ad was tone-deaf. Fair enough. What usually seems to follow this sentiment is a limp observation to the effect of: “How could Pepsi’s marketing department allow this to happen?” My guess would be that amidst all the navel-gazing that went into creating this campaign, someone failed to identify the following (highly scientific) formula:


(International brand + attempt at political statement + a Kardashian) x Twitter = Oh…no….


All jokes aside, it’s flat-out dumb and lazy to even ask that “How…?” question. It cloaks Pepsi’s marketing team in blissful ignorance where these seemingly intelligent professionals, who produce some of the most wildly prominent advertising in the world, tripped over an extremely combustible social issue. Call me a biased optimist, but I have too much faith to see this as accidental.


And thankfully I’m not alone! There’s a contrarian opinion going around that Pepsi knew exactly what it was doing. As The Hollywood Reporter put it, "Some in the advertising industry think that the ad was deliberately created by Pepsi, the company playing some form of Machiavellian 4D chess.” This immediately raises the question: OK, even if they self-immolated on purpose, why?


Let’s look to the numbers. People quotes an unnamed executive as estimating: “At least $2 million [in production costs], but probably more like $5 million, including Kendall’s fee,” along with “roughly $100 million [in media spend].” That puts our sunk costs around $105 million, for an ad that ran about a day. That’s an expensive flight. What did they get?


Pepsi’s social mentions across all platforms skyrocketed 21,675% from April 3 to April 5, so the answer, however short-lived, is: “Uh, more exposure, I guess?"


More interesting is that only 60% of those mentions skewed negative, so 40% of people tweeting about Pepsi were either indifferent or positive during the same time period. Am I the only one who feels like that’s a little low, given the outrage? Or is this just how sentiment is tracked nowadays, where backlash to a thing sparks backlash to that backlash, and we end up with this weird double negative that looks like positivity? Has the snake eaten its own tail?


The L.A. Times finds another anonymous source (a lot of advertising heroes came out of the woodwork for this) who fathoms that the “mistake or subversive strategy” likely resulted in “$300-$400 million in free press.” So if we’re doing the quick math, this looks like Pepsi ended up with more than it paid for. Based on where the intentions fall, this makes the ad either a well-placed bet or a lottery-esque windfall.


This early in the outrage cycle, it’s impossible to assign a dollar figure to what this means, since exposure doesn’t pay to keep the lights on. If you’re interested to see the net effect on sales, I’d say Pepsi’s Q1 2017 earnings call on April 26 has become a must-watch (er..listen?) event where we’ll inevitably get a few clues how executive management feels – specifically, whether they believe it will impact sales this quarter. Don’t worry if you’re busy - I’ll share notes.


As much as I wanted to view this whole ordeal through the prism of where advertising, finance, and sociology collide, I’ll end by admitting a quiet optimism that there could be more to it than that. As Ian Bogost at the Atlantic wrote:


"The genius of this decision is that it satisfies everyone. The Kardashian fanatics got their Kendall Jenner fix. The agitators get to feel that they have successfully redressed a big brand company; a minor victory in a time of so many defeats. The earnest, probably-white folk who enjoyed Pepsi’s alternative to constant politicization got their saccharine status-quo—and now they also get a branded excuse to issue a counter-offensive against the progressives who insisted on bringing politics into innocuous soft drinks (surely it’s coming). The media get their scoops, and their think pieces (like this one). And these outcomes, incompatible though they are, all return attention to Pepsi—which is all it really wanted in the first place."


This is where I thought of P.T. Barnum. There just might be a middle ground between practicing questionable selling methods and ultimately doing something good, whether you meant to or not. Back in the day, perhaps that meant shilling for a fake giant, while also giving the public something to take its mind off a difficult period in history. Maybe today, that takes the form of a cola company baiting social media for cheap exposure, while in turn giving us all something to escape and cling to online. The methods are questionable, but there’s some inherent good in distraction, I think.




It’s just a dumb ad and we’re all a bunch of fools. Hey, at least Pepsi didn’t egregiously beat anyone up this week, right?


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