How and Why Racist Ads Happen

Racist marketing campaigns happen all the time, and when they do people always ask the same question: how did this disaster even get off the drawing board?

Take Kendall Jenner’s now infamous Pepsi ad. The commercial showed Jenner (of all people) leading a protest that resembled Black Lives Matter. At the end of the ad, Jenner handed the police a soda and the cops shrugged, realizing their new-found preference for Pepsi over state violence.

The ad trivialized major societal issues, cast the most basic white girl as the face of the resistance, and likened brave protests to block parties. If you still don’t know why this ad was offensive, then log onto Twitter.

We could talk all day about every racist detail of this ad because there were plenty. But I think it’s more worthwhile to analyze the nature of American business (and society) that allows this kind racism to seep into our advertising.

The commercial was created by an internal group at PepsiCo – not an external ad agency. Some marketers theorized that this group was under immense pressure to produce content too quickly and that its internal employees were too devoted to the brand to see the bigger picture, making it prone to disaster.

I call bull sh*t.

What went wrong at Pepsi was that minorities did not have a seat at the table. As reported by The Mirror, all six people listed in the credits for the ad were – surprise, surprise! – white.

Sometimes, when (white) people hear that more black people need to be hired into key positions they consider it a kind of reverse racism. They think that intentionally employing a black person would take the job from a perhaps more qualified white person.

This assumption is seriously misinformed.

Regardless of qualifications, employers are significantly less likely to hire black people. In fact, a black American with a bachelor’s degree is nearly twice as likely to be unemployed as a white American with the same educational background. Black men spend significantly more time searching for jobs, acquire less experience and have less stable employment than whites with equivalent characteristics.

White people hire white people. Many companies prefer to hire candidates with referrals from existing employees, a practice that favors white applicants. Résumés with black-sounding names are less likely to be considered. All people – including job interviewers – have psychological biases toward those who look and act like them. All these tendencies benefit white people and harm black applicants.

Additionally, black talent is less likely to be identified and nurtured for leadership. This is evident in the lack of black CEOs on the Fortune 500 list. There are currently no black women and only four black men (less than one percent) running the biggest companies in the U.S.

Black people are disadvantaged at every level of business. Early on, American schools are separate and unequal, disfavoring largely black communities and making it harder to get an education. Once a black person earns a degree, there are significant obstacles to getting hired. Once they are hired, many black employees are underestimated and are less likely to be put on a path toward meaningful decision-making roles.

It’s no wonder our ads are racist! Racism is embedded at every level of business. The white perspective dominates the corporate world, so of course we are going to end up with insensitive ad campaigns – an entire chunk of the American experience is essentially absent.

So, what should we do?

We need more representation. Representation has a trickle down effect. Hiring more black employees would provide more business connections to other black people. It would help minimize subconscious biases in hiring. It would provide more mentors to identify and develop young black talent. Overall, it would lead to a more balanced organization that exhibits a broader range of values and perspectives to appeal to a diverse American public.

Representation is not a moral service. It is a problem-solving necessity – and a prerequisite for real equality. Only when real equality exists in our businesses will it shine through in our marketing – and until then, expect more flops like Pepsi.


One thought on “Pepsi Falls Flat

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