Companies take a risk when they decide to comment on social issues.  When done right, companies can make genuine connections with existing and potential customers.  When done wrong, companies can turn off their audiences, which can lead to drops in sales, smeared brand reputations, and negative press.

Heineken and Pepsi both recently released commercials touching on social issues. As one of our executives recently discussed with Fox News, Pepsi’s message received widespread criticism.  Heineken’s message was positively received, for the most part. So, what did Pepsi do wrong, and what did Heineken do right?

Heineken’s recent, seemingly unscripted “Worlds Apart” commercial paired people with opposing views and required them to work together on different projects.  Each pair in the 4 minute 25 second ad, upon learning about their differing opinions, decided to sit down and discuss their thoughts over a drink, rather than leave the room. The experiment showed that even though people might have conflicting stances around an important issue, they can still have a lot in common and can be better to each other than we might expect.  It nicely surprised its audience by making light of a circumstance that is often viewed negatively today: people with strikingly differing opinions discussing their points of dissent.  It showed that we’re able to have good will for one another, despite our differences. It’s a message of hope that provided a new perspective on how to talk about social issues.

Pepsi’s recent “Jump In” commercial seems to have had the opposite effect.  It featured Kendall Jenner abandoning a photoshoot to join a demonstration.  At one point in the 2 minute 39 second ad, Jenner hands a policeman a Pepsi, and the crowd erupts in cheers. The commercial was received with overwhelming dislike and was immediately pulled. Viewers said that Pepsi capitalized on the nation’s serious issues and trivialized movements such as the Women’s Marches and the Black Lives Matter protests by suggesting that a supermodel and a soda are able to effectively dissolve tensions that the brave sacrifices of activists have not.  Many felt disrespected seeing Jenner – who we recognize as a reality TV star, not as the face of social justice – starring in an ad that evoked solemn imagery from recent revolts.  Pepsi initially defended itself against the backlash, saying its intention was to “project a global message of peace, unity and understanding.”  Perhaps most notable among those who publicly criticized Pepsi was Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., who Tweeted “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi.”

Heineken’s commercial was thought-provoking, while Pepsi’s felt self-congratulatory. Heineken set a great example of a brand taking on sensitive social issues in a non-cringeworthy way.  If brands insist on commenting on social issues, then this is the kind of commentary we should hope to see more of.

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