Tale of Two Drink Ads

Two recent ads have made the news.  They have a lot in common.  Both products are drinks, and both ads tackled contemporary social controversies.  They both show people stepping out of their comfort zones to share a drink with someone on the opposing side of an issue.  But one ad was met with an outpouring of contempt and anger while the other being cheered.  They offer a good chance to examine what does and doesn’t work with ads that attempt to capitalize on current affairs.

Pepsi’s ad features a staged scene of a police protest apparently modelled on Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police killings in the USA.  We see a montage of people from different ethnic and cultural groups.  Then Kendall Jenner strolls into demo and offers a police officer a Pepsi.  The internet groaned and unleashed its scorn.

The Heineken ad shows ordinary anonymous people sharing their views on social issues, then being paired up to follow a set of instructions.  They build a bar.  And then they watch the videos of each other together and learn they have diametrically opposed views.  They discuss this over a Heineken and realize they have common ground and a lot to learn about each other.  The internet swooned and hailed this ad as innovative and brilliant.

So what makes these two ads so different?  Why did one bomb so epically while the other boosted the universe’s feel good factor?

Three Lessons for Addressing Social Issues

One clear difference is that Pepsi used actors including one celebrity and Heineken used real people.  Scripting a re-enactment of a demonstration and using actors was Pepsi putting their interpretation of events forward as an unbiased reality. It doesn’t wash.  No one related to their “demonstrators” happily singing and dancing in the streets.  The sanitized version of a demonstration in Pepsi’s ad was nothing like reality.  But using real people, as Heineken did, gives the audience a chance to relate .  They didn’t try to replicate reality.  They served up some reality, albeit a carefully selected and edited reality.  But they kept it real enough for people to connect with it emotionally.

Pepsi’s commercial is an exercise in extreme product placement. The product and the social issue compete for our attention, and the juxtaposition is jarring.  Heineken’s ad keeps you guessing about the product until the end.  The product is a prop.  It’s more like a sponsorship of an interesting video.  Pepsi’s ad takes a more sales orientated approach.  Heineken focused on actual conversations, while Pepsi used no dialogue, only music.

While the Heineken ad shows real people in their complexity, the Pepsi ad relies on stereotypes.  It features an Asian classical musician, Black hip hop dancers and an intense Muslim woman.  Heineken even takes aim at the superficial in that the initial videos do show a reduced version of the people.  It’s just them talking about one social issue, stating fairly straightforward and strong views with zero ambiguity.  But then it shows the pairs of people working together, and we see a more well-rounded view of them as individuals, real people.

Tackling social issues in marketing requires a very detailed and nuanced understanding of both your audience and the social issues at hand.  It requires real empathy for those involved.  It’s incredibly difficult to get right, but when a company does nail it, the ad goes viral amid wild applause.  And that’s worth the enormous amount of research and hard work required.

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