Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner Ad is Just the Latest Example of the Brand’s Decades-Long Strategy of Co-Opting Counterculture

Pepsi's been playing this game since the 1960s.

Yesterday, Pepsi released an ad (which has since been pulled) in which supermodel Kendall Jenner ditches a photo shoot and joins a ragtag (and very attractive) group of young protesters marching in the streets carrying peace signs. The reaction to the spot — which culminates with Jenner stepping up to a riot police officer and handing him a can of Pepsi, thus saving the world — has been a resounding, what the fuck; on Twitter, many people pointed out the irony of the ad, which casts a rich, white model, a white cop, and a giant corporation that sells sugar water as the heroes of the #resistance.

The ad shouldn’t come as a surprise, not only because the commercialization of dissent has already become an established fact of life under the Trump administration. (And not only because, as others remarked, shoring up outrage and thus ensuring articles such as the one you’re reading right now will keep Pepsi in the public eye for at least a day or two.)

Pepsi has a long history of co-opting countercultural sentiment to sell its products, a strategy that reaches back to the culture wars of the 1960s. The “Pepsi Generation” slogan originated with the company’s senior vice president in charge of marketing, Alan Pottasch, who had the now-familiar but then-groundbreaking insight to sell a feeling rather than a product. When Pottasch died in 2007, the L.A. Times noted that the campaign “focused on the attributes of people who buy Pepsi, rather than attributes of the product such as taste or price.”

The strategy worked, and Pepsi has held onto it ever since. The slogan entered the popular lexicon, and as Pottasch pointed out, people began referring to the Boomers as the “Pepsi Generation.” “That of course is a dream for a product,” he said. “It made Pepsi part of everything that was going on, and that is a great place to be.”

In 1970, Pepsi commissioned Japanese architect Tadashi Doi to design its pavilion at Expo ’70 in Osaka, Japan. The company then turned to the non-profit artist collective Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.) to transform the dome-like structure into a giant, avant-garde art installation. According to the Smithsonian, the group “created a series of highly site-specific, integrated installations that dissolved the boundaries between art, technology and space, using the dome’s form against itself to create an immersive multimedia experience they referred to as “a living responsive environment.”

In the 1980s, Pepsi attempted to reboot its successful 1960s campaign, rolling out the slightly modified slogan, “The Choice of a New Generation” and shooting a series of commercials featuring popular musicians like Madonna, David Bowie, and, infamously, Michael Jackson, whose hair caught fire while filming his commercial (an episode that Neil Young lampooned with the 1988 music video for “This Note’s For You.”)

Pepsi found another route to its desired hip, young demographic through the revived Woodstock concert in 1994. The company paid two million dollars for the rights to use Woodstock’s iconic dove-and-guitar symbol in conjunction with its own logo, an image it slapped on its cans.

As Mark W. Rectanus remarks in his 2002 book Culture Incorporated: Museums, Artists, and Corporate Sponsorshipsthe primary source of revenue for Woodstock’s sponsors, which also included Haagen-Dazs, was not the event itself but the promotional opportunity it presented. Pepsi published 10 million copies of a promotional guide to the festival, available at grocery stores and movie theater chains, featuring “statistics” on the volume of Pepsi-brand products concertgoers were expected to consume (76.2 million fluid ounces of the cola, and 12 million ounces of Lipton Brisk Ice Tea).

Of course, Pepsi is not alone in its desire to capture the hearts and wallets of young people with money to spend. As Thomas Frank wrote in his 1997 book, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism:

Regardless of the tastes of Republican leaders, rebel youth culture remains the cultural mode of the corporate moment, used to promote not only specific products but the general idea of life in the cyber-revolution. Commercial fantasies of rebellion, liberation, and outright “revolution” against the stultifying demands of mass society are commonplace almost to the point of invisibility in advertising, movies, and television programming.

Pepsi’s co-opting of countercultural sentiment earned its fair share of criticism over the years, particularly in response to its Woodstock efforts. (In the New York Times, Jon Pareles opened his review with a quote from Tim Booth, the singer of the English band James, who asked the audience, “Has anybody seen the Woodstock spirit? I know it’s not on those Pepsi cans.”) But the backlash to the latest salvo feels particularly swift and harsh, partly because of the whiplash-inducing speed with which controversy foments on social media, and partly, I think, because people are already growing weary of brands’ attempts to appeal to customers by leeching off the cause of the week at such a politically fraught moment. Trump’s astoundingly, boastfully corrupt administration makes it extra hard to clap a corporation on the back for paying lip service to the resistance.