Terrorists might be bad for brands, but Kendall Jenner could be far worse

Elliott Haworth
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In the age of the 140 character show trial, brands can’t just say what they want and expect no riposte. (Source: YouTube, Pepsi Co)

I learned all about Kendall Jenner last week; a sort of plastic automaton of the Kardashian ilk.

One day a model, the next an actor, she’ll work for the highest bidder, which last week – like the drink mixer at every disappointing bar – was Pepsi.

“Devastated” was the 21 year old zillionaire’s reaction to the pulling of an ad, in which she offers a Pepsi to a police officer surrounded by placarded protesters, in a knowing nod to the Black Lives Matter protests of recent.

Both cultural insensitivity and appropriation in one fell swoop; “tone-deafness” and “white privilege” combined: the ad was pulled within 24 hours after an omnidirectional haranguing from the Twitterati.

Whether one agrees with the political sentiment of the mob or not, it proves that in the age of the 140 character show trial, brands can’t just say what they want and expect no riposte.

The current vogue in AdLand is aligning the views of the brand with that of a cause celebre. And it works well, when authentic. Guinness’s Gareth Thomas series was fantastic. The Maltesers ad with deaf and disabled actors hit home. The Lloyds Bank “he said yes” campaign was both subtle and tasteful.

But getting it wrong is essentially self-flagellation.

Social media, in its embryonic years, was known as “Participatory Media” – a far more apt title with noticeably less pizzazz. The point being that, when you put yourself on parade – align yourself with something that, for better or worse, your target consumers care about – don’t be surprised when you’re put in the stocks for a good old-fashioned public shaming when you miss the mark.

What you say and what you do has to add up. Like Audi promoting gender equality at the Super Bowl but having just two female board members, Pepsi, a $62bn global conglomerate, is in no position to piggyback on a wave of anti-establishment sentiment.

The problem with following marketing trends is that they are infrequently conducive to the betterment of business, however well intended. The road to hell is, as the aphorism goes, paved with good intentions.

But brands don’t need to save the world; the idea of them having some sort of moral obligation stinks of false rectitude – Keeping Up Appearances, if you will.

There’s an idiosyncratic parallel with the current YouTube misplaced ads debacle here. Out of sensitivity, brands have gone into an overblown defence to ensure that they don’t align with malign views, while also exposing themselves to ridicule by associating with delicate issues. Terrorists might be bad for your brand, but Kendall Jenner could be a lot worse.

Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.

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