What We Can Learn From the Kendall Jenner Pepsi Ad

Pepsi’s most recent commercial, featuring model and TV personality Kendall Jenner, generated a tidal wave of backlash against both the star and the brand following its release. The advertisement portrays Kendall as a high-fashion model, wearing a sleek blonde wig and posing for a photographer. When she catches a glimpse of a protest passing by, she promptly rips off the wig and runs off to join the movement. In order to loosen up one of the riot officers, Kendall hands him a can of Pepsi. Their interaction instantly shatters his hard exterior, eliciting all sorts of cheers and celebratory screams from the crowd.

The commercial was designed to cater to today’s politically active, protest-oriented millennial generation. Ever since Trump’s election into office, the number of protests and demonstrations that have broken out nationwide has shot up tremendously. From the Women’s March to the Black Lives Matter movement, young people are constantly looking for ways to resist outdated ideologies and enact progressive change. Pepsi tried to capitalize upon this recent surge of social and political activity by placing it at the centerpiece of its campaign.

Although Pepsi’s intentions may have been smart, its execution was far from perfect. In fact, most people found the commercial exploitative and offensive. By presenting Kendall Jenner – a celebrity symbol of materialism and white privilege – as this paradigm for social progressivism, Pepsi managed to trivialize the very issues that continue to persist in today’s society. It was Pepsi’s way of saying that it could end systemic racial discrimination with just a can of its soda.

The commercial also brings up the issue of female representation in the media, especially of Muslim women. The story also follows a Muslim woman in a headscarf as she works on a photography project. When she overhears the protest passing outside her window, she grabs her camera and runs outside to document the demonstration. She conveniently makes it outside just in time to capture Kendall’s racism-ending exchange with the police officer on camera. 

The role of the Muslim woman in the Pepsi commercial is perhaps the most problematic aspect of the entire video. The commercial never addresses the issues that she endures as a Muslim woman living in America. Instead, she is presented as nothing more than Kendall’s servant, the designated photographer appointed to capture the white savior’s great act of heroism. Her appearance in the video is supposed to lend the commercial an air of “diversity” – her hijab is posited as a symbol of social acceptance. However, the societal issues surrounding the hijab, and Muslim American culture in general, are far too grave to justify this type of objectification.

Despite being incredibly offensive, the Pepsi commercial encourages us, as viewers, to always view media with a critical eye. Our media-centric society makes it alarmingly easy to spread a social statement, be it good or bad, so we have to be especially ready to resist the statements that threaten to push us backwards.