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.
Elle Hearns, the executive director of the Marsha P. Johnson Institute and formerly an organizer for Black Lives Matter, said the ad “plays down the sacrifices people have historically taken in utilizing protests.”
“No one is finding joy from Pepsi at a protest,” she said. “That’s just not the reality of our lives. That’s not what it looks like to take bold action.”
In a statement on Tuesday, Pepsi at first said the ad, which was produced by an in-house studio, “captures the spirit and actions of those people that jump in to every moment.”
To many who saw the ad, it was a tone-deaf note. Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, was among those who drew the connection to past protests.
If I had carried Pepsi I guess I never would've gotten arrested. Who knew?— deray mckesson (@deray) April 5, 2017
The image of Ms. Jenner approaching a line of police officers was compared to a widely shared photo of Ieshia Evans, a black woman who stood firm while being charged by riot police during a protest against police brutality in Baton Rouge, La., in July.
The best example of white and economic privilege/ ignorance I've ever seen. Never forget Ieshia Evans. #Pepsi pic.twitter.com/lXeTp7OBMj— maya (@mayaelysee) April 4, 2017
“It has no relationship to the courage that that woman showed,” Ms. Hearns said, referring to Ms. Evans. “That woman standing in the middle of the street was not trying to be a peacemaker with the police. She was being defiant. She was actually resisting.”
Pepsi also apologized on Wednesday to Ms. Jenner, a daughter of the television personalities Kris and Caitlin Jenner, and a half sister to Kim, Khloé and Kourtney Kardashian.
Ms. Jenner has in recent years harnessed her fame as a reality television star and social media eminence (she has more than 77 million followers on Instagram) to become a top model.
This is not the first time Ms. Jenner, who has been photographed for the cover of Vogue and is a mainstay on the runways during fashion weeks, has appeared in a high-profile advertising campaign. She has been featured in print and television ads for Estée Lauder, Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein and Fendi. The Pepsi ad plays up the point by having Ms. Jenner’s character arrive at the protest straight from what appears to be a fashion photo shoot. In so doing, the company is positioning Ms. Jenner as a successor to the supermodel Cindy Crawford, who appeared in a famous Pepsi ad in 1992. (“Goals,” Ms. Jenner tweeted last week, with a picture of Ms. Crawford in Pepsi regalia.)
Nor is it the first time Ms. Jenner has, intentionally or not, courted controversy. In 2015, some observers accused her of cultural appropriation for wearing her hair in cornrows, a historically black style.