Updated April 6, 2017
Pepsi has apologized for a controversial advertisement that borrowed imagery from the Black Lives Matter movement, after a day of intense criticism from people who said it trivialized the widespread protests against the killings of black people by the police.
“Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue. We are pulling the content and halting any further rollout.”
The ad, posted to YouTube on Tuesday, shows attractive young people holding milquetoast signs with nonspecific pleas like “Join the conversation.” The protesters are uniformly smiling, laughing, clapping, hugging and high-fiving.
In the ad’s climactic scene, a police officer accepts a can of Pepsi from Kendall Jenner, a white woman, setting off raucous approval from the protesters and an appreciative grin from the officer.
It was, current activists say, precisely the opposite of their real-world experience of protesting police brutality.
In torrid criticism after the ad was posted, commentators on social media accused Pepsi of appropriating imagery from serious protests to sell its product, while minimizing the danger protesters encounter and the frustration they feel.
When Kendall Jenner announced she was going to star in a Pepsi ad, some thought she would take the Cindy Crawford route, starring as a hot and bothered model who quenches her thirst with an icy soda. But this political climate calls for something deeper, and Jenner’s ad is an attempt.
In her clip, she forgoes her modeling duties to join a protest outside her studio and share a Pepsi with the policeman at the demonstration, in an effort to demonstrate unity. The model finds herself among a diverse crowd, along with two supporting characters—a hijabi photographer and a male cellist—in the three-minute-long commercial. Some viewers have already pointed out the ad is questionable, and called out Pepsi for co-opting protests (which we’ve seen in recent months to fight big, real problems like gender inequality, Islamophobia and systematic racism) for the sake of selling soda.
But what it does get right is the music. Skip Marley’s “Lions” soundtracks the video. The uplifting power ballad is an anthemic call to arms to take action and make a difference while promoting strength and togetherness. “We are the movement, this generation / You better know who we are, who we are,” the chorus rings.
This commercial is just a jumping-off point for 20-year-old Marley. (And yes, if you couldn’t tell by his last name, he’s Bob Marley’s grandson.) He released “Lions” in February this year, has already collaborated with Katy Perry and plans to release an EP this summer. Before the ad premiered, Marley talked to HarpersBAZAAR.com about writing the song and being inspired by his grandfather’s legacy.
He’s glad Pepsi chose his song for this commercial.
“It’s such a good way of spreading a message, a gathering of unity. So the music really goes hand in hand with the message of unity in this commercial. I was happy that I could be a part of the new movement. I was excited.”
His message in “Lions” is about coming together.
“The ‘Lions’ inspiration was unity. I started with a riff on the guitar, and I was playing the riff in the studio. I knew the drums and then the song really fell in hand in hand. We knew it had a power, a message, so it was really natural.”
He believes that uplifting message is all the more necessary at this political moment.
“We’ve always needed it, but right now we need it more than ever. Well, it’s a constant need of unity and togetherness. So I just added onto that. I’m happy that this generation grabbed onto it.”
The ad focuses on a lot of young people participating in a protest and making their voices heard, which is something Marley relates to.
“Young people are the future of the world. It’s a new generation, a new start. We can do it better. We’re growing; as people, we’re supposed to grow, we’re supposed to learn, and the next generation grows and learns, you know? It’s our time now.”
Island Stage and Reggae Reflection Interview with Skip Marley 2015 Catch A Fire Tour