home Commentary, Culture, Entertainment, Society Pepsi, Nivea, United and Spicer: a disastrous PR week for all

Pepsi, Nivea, United and Spicer: a disastrous PR week for all


Earlier this week, we couldn’t have predicted that Pepsi’s PR screw-up would be several down the list of worst PR disasters this week. It was a bit like the day of the Brexit referendum results, when the Prime Minister resigning in shame was barely even noticed, given the rest of the clusterfuck that was going on.

So. Where do we start?

Pepsi and Nivea

Pepsi created an advertisement featuring Kendall Jenner as a model in a photoshoot who saw a non-descript demonstration going on outside, pulled off her wig and approached a line of police officers. It was tense, reminiscent of many photos we have seen from Black Lives Matters and other demonstrations, until she handed one cop a can of Pepsi. He opened and drank it, everybody relaxed, and all was well with the world.

The co-opting of the resistance America and other countries have seen for a commercial was insensitive at best, and downplaying the very real and frightening issue of police violence as something that can be resolved with a can of pop is offensive. The many Black and disabled Americans who have been injured or killed by the police are erased in favour of a capitalist message of consumption and conformity.

The outrage online was immediate and widespread. It seemed that nobody could see past the terrible messaging and everybody was incensed. Within 48 hours, Pepsi had pulled the ad and apologised.

The phrase ‘all publicity is good publicity’ has been thrown round a lot since the public’s reaction to the Pepsi fiasco became clear. But misjudging the mood of a nation that is wound so tight in despair and hopelessness is not something that can be spun and written off. Pepsi’s bad publicity did not secretly boost their profile; it – rightly – caused severe embarrassment and led to an ad that presumably cost a lot of money to be tanked within two days of its launch.

The changes that are being encouraged by protests and demonstrations cannot be simplified and reduced to a single moment of goodwill by a demonstrator – offering a drink – and a cop going from serious to relaxed because of his thirst being quenched. It is depressing but true that demonstrators, especially Black people and other minority groups, can be put into danger in these situations, and the police cannot be relied upon. They do not become ‘good guys’ if somebody offers them refreshments.

Meanwhile, Nivea also produced an insensitive and offensive commercial that played on racial stereotypes. The image of a woman was adorned with the slogan ‘white is purity’ and quickly condemned as racist on Twitter, which also saw the ad shared approvingly by white supremacist accounts.

United Airlines

While Nivea and Pepsi were licking their wounds, United rose up like a hero in the ‘We can trump your PR disaster!’ stakes. After booking a flight to capacity, four passengers were required to disembark to make room for crew who were needed at another airport. Despite being offered $800 and a hotel for the night until the next flight, no passengers were willing to deal with the disruption involved so an algorithm chose four passengers at random.

What happened next has been widely documented, including on a video by a fellow passenger, as Dr David Dao was dragged against his will off the plane. He later appeared, bleeding and asking people to ‘just kill’ him.

It was a surprise to nobody that the victim in this case was a man of colour. And, as if this was not bad enough, the backlash soon started, with the media dragging out the criminal history of a ‘David Dao’ with a troubled past — who turned out to be a completely different man. The media’s race to discredit him and downplay the damage caused by United during their disgraceful operation attracted further backlash.

Sean Spicer

The first thing to realise, when it comes to Sean Spicer, is that his job is to do a really good job relating to the media. It’s literally his whole job to get great press coverage for the White House. Just keep that in mind.

When justifying violent action against Syrians, Spicer declared to the gathered press that Assad, the Syrian president, was worse than Hitler. In justifying this viewpoint, he said that Hitler had never used chemical weapons.

When challenged by astounded journalists, Spicer quickly remembered that millions of disabled, Jewish, gay, socialist and other people were indeed killed by chemical gas in the concentration camps. He backpedalled, stating that “he was not using the gas on his own people”, as if the aforementioned minority groups were not German. Perhaps a Jewish or disabled German is not viewed as a ‘true’ German by Spicer, just like they weren’t by Hitler himself. But at least Assad is worse than him, right?

So who wins?

None of them. Pepsi might have faded out of the headlines, but their ad was well thought out, probably very expensive to produce, and absolutely abhorrent. Nivea have come up against claims of racism before and really should know better. United Airlines should organise themselves properly, avoiding the need to forcibly remove people from their aircraft. And Sean Spicer should apologise, stand down and get a new job somewhere inoffensive that does not involve speaking to anybody, ever again.

Nobody wins.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/Creative Commons


Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.