Feelings matter: Don’t learn the hard way.

/ written by Mike Passalacqua

Bigfish responded as an agency to the Pepsi ad that tried—in a tone-deaf and frankly, insensitive way—to piggyback off of recent events and outbursts of protest. Political allegiances aside, we felt compelled to join the social media chorus decrying the failure of the ad, ‘Jump In.’ In the aftermath of the firestorm, we’d like to share a little bit of water-cooler office conversation on the topic from an agency perspective.

First, as we noted in our social media posts, it is indeed possible for brands to tackle a controversial issue in an ad. Of course, the brand has to determine that going the ‘issues’ route is an effective and worthwhile way to reach the audience they want to target. That audience is going to be younger, possibly activist, multi-cultural/ethnic and decidedly concerned about justice. On the other hand, older, whiter audiences are not going to receive issue ads as well. Here’s the thing: trying not to alienate anyone is going to get you where Pepsi landed—in a sugar-coated, feel good world where the serious problems a large segment of society is outraged about are solved with soda pop. Newsflash—Protestors don’t protest because they’re happy. Lesson one: recognize that your audience is making a passionate and possibly dangerous commitment to changing the system, that others are resisting the changes, and that your brand has to choose a side if you want to capture the spirit of the movement.

Second, brands must approach an issue-oriented ad like a fine wine. By that I mean, the brand needs to understand that the ad’s full impact should unfold over time. In that sense, putting the brand out front as a change agent is too aggressive and totally inauthentic. Pepsi couldn’t have suffered worse social media blowback than the widely-shared photo of a young African American kid handing out bottled water to armor-clad cops in Baltimore with the caption: “We tried this, it didn’t work.” Rather than calling out the pain a community feels, Pepsi called out protest as street party where refreshing Pepsi brings out the love. In a word: no. Lesson two: the issue-oriented ad is about the issue first, and the brand messaging as a second component that subtly rests on the palate in the background.

Lastly, we can’t help but note that Pepsi produced this ad in-house. That’s not an inherently bad thing. After all, no one knows the Pepsi brand like Pepsi. At Bigfish we work with in-house marketing teams all the time—they’re smart, creative people. But something we notice on a regular basis is the benefit a brand gets from the distances an agency can bring to an outlook. For instance, at one level, the distance between a brand image and consumers is shortened, because the agency stands in as the consumer and passes judgement and provides insights accordingly. At another level, the distance between a brand and its overwhelming corporate culture is widened when an agency can place itself into a role as thoughtful intermediary. In the case of Pepsi, it would have been nice if an outside group of analysts and thinkers had offered some perspective. It would have saved Pepsi a lot of money and embarrassment as well. Lesson three: a key service offered by ad agencies is to act as a brand image sounding board and advisor, with both the immediacy of an end-user, and at a remove from in-house group think.

Okay, if a picture is worth a thousand words, this ad from Vicks is worth hundreds of thousands, so we’ll share it again. It focuses on the issue of transgender rights in India, it takes a side and advocates for the fight, it makes you want to drink it in with several more views, the product is anything but front and center, and yes, an agency—Publicis Singapore—produced it.

Which is our way of saying that, in a political atmosphere unlike any other, brands might want help in clearly thinking things through before they grab the issues-oriented tiger by the tail.