All Publicity is Good, Until It Isn't

The idiom “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” only rings true for anyone who isn’t actually involved in PR. Because any PR aficionado will tell you that yes, there is such thing as bad publicity, and bad publicity can destroy a brand, a business, or a person beyond repair.

The growth of social media, and the ability to share opinions and news with anyone in the world at the click of a mouse – and potentially make anything go viral – is a volatile weapon in terms of PR. On one side of the coin, the ability to send positive messages that get picked up and shared will reap dividends for a brand and send their brand reputation soaring. But on the other hand, as we saw earlier this month with Pepsi, the brand can be reduced to being the product of a terrible PR move. Pepsi will most likely recover from the mishap – but other brands might not be so lucky.

The Pepsi mishap stemmed from Pepsi using Kendall Jenner to hand out cans of Pepsi to the police, a move reminiscent of the Black Lives Matter movement, implying that issues can be solved with a can of Pepsi. At the drawing board, the idea probably sounded good: Pepsi wants to be a force of good in the world to fix the problems and fractures within the community. We are all one, we all feel thirsty, and most of us like Pepsi and can share a can and get some perspective. Using Kendall Jenner was a coup, too. She is extremely popular and relevant, and will ensure shareability from the youth of today, who won’t remember the Cola Wars of the 1980s. Pepsi were probably hoping that they would tie their love of keeping up with Kendall with the brand and convert to the Pepsi way of life.

Where they went wrong was the symbolism. Police/civilian issues in America are extremely polarizing and too close to the bone to be used in throwaway advertising. Had they instead gone with the theme using high school students from rival schools bonding after the game over a cold can of Pepsi delivered by Kendall Jenner, they would probably have achieved their marketing objectives. However, that concept is ultimately tame and predictable and might not make Pepsi stand out as one of the top 100 brands. Brand saturation is strong, with many brands fighting for visibility in the digital and physical spheres. Taking risks gets people noticed and Pepsi took that risk.

The brand’s credibility won’t be affected in the long run, and Kendall Jenner will continue being featured in brand’s ads without having her career affected. In the same way that brand blunders can spark up and spiral out of control, another idiom of publicity rings true: today’s news, tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping. Another brand will come along and cause a blunder that gets Twitter outraged, leaving Pepsi to head back to the drawing board to design a tamer, safer ad.