4 aspects of advertising highlighted through the Pepsi ad debacle

By now, you must have read about the ad featuring Kendall Jenner created for Pepsi by their in-house agency, Creators League. The ad was taken off air after a huge backlash on social media. I don’t feel too thrilled piling on to the agency and the brand through yet another critique of what went wrong. Having had a fair share of duds in my advertising career, I know how it feels to create an ad which gets brickbats. Advertising is a profession where everyone is an expert. All of us have an opinion on what exactly needs to be done to ‘fix’ or ‘improve’ an ad and give such advice freely. Fact is, not all of us are aware of the rationale behind ad ad campaign and the compulsions within which the brand team operates. Nevertheless since advertising material is put out in the public they cannot escape criticism.

I think this ad debacle highlights a few issues about the industry which have been ingrained in its way of working over the years:

1. Advertising is sometimes taken far too seriously

Advertising ‘moves’ business and fuels commerce. It is an essential part of society helping people find information about businesses. Creativity is also an integral part of this business and ads have entertained while informing for decades. The best of advertising has taken inspiration from current societal trends and has even become part of popular culture. But at the end of the day, ‘its only advertising’. I think the general consumer understands this and takes advertising claims with a pinch of salt. The consumer also understands that a talcum powder cannot guarantee success in a job interview and that the brand is only trying to dramatise the effect of ‘confidence’ arising from the ‘feel good factor’ using the product. But the industry insiders take their jobs far too seriously most of the time (‘should the model wear a blue or black top?’ could be a half a day discussion in a pre-production meeting) and everyone else follows suit sometimes. Also real people don’t care about advertising – they want to go on with their regular lives and what occupies their minds is regular mundane stuff. 90% of the advertising is mediocre and goes un-noticed in any case. And in the rare occasion that a high profile brand takes a misstep, everyone piles on as if it is the most important thing in the world. Fact is, there is far too much strife in many parts of the world and everyone is better off focusing on how to solve those than a tactical ad for a sugared-water brand. The product category (sugared water) has rightly come into the limelight of late, for its impact on health, especially that of children. But still the product category and what it says in a TV commercial is far too inconsequential in the larger scheme of things.

2. Benefit laddering stretched to incredulous levels

Exaggeration is common and in fact, a must in advertising. It’d be boring if an ad simply explained what a product does. An ad’s job is to sell a concept, a dream or an idea and in that process, spinning a yarn is to be expected. No one expects a pug to follow a boy who goes on foot all over the countryside or an adhesive brand to be the reason behind the improbable passenger count in a bus. A product’s feature is presented in a dramatic way so that it sticks in the consumer’s mind.

In this quest to stretch the benefit comes the concept of ‘benefit laddering’. It is a way of dramatising the benefit to not limit it to just at the product level. A toothpaste brand may claim that it brings couples ‘closer’ thanks to it fresh breath (a generic benefit) – examples of such advertising abound. Sometimes, the benefit is laddered or ‘stretched’ so far the it becomes incredulous. ‘Suspension of disbelief’ is common among consumers when watching advertising (or movies, I guess). But sometimes it becomes tough even for such a suspension to occur when a soft drink is expected to be a catalyst for world peace. The Ad Contrarian summed it up as only he can:

Virtue-hustling is just one example of the old school psycho-babble trope of “laddering-up” of consumer benefits. Often to the point at which they have no relationship to the product at hand.

It goes something like this: Shin-E-Flor makes your floors shinier, which makes your house nicer, which makes your family happier, which makes life better, which makes your dreams come true. Ergo, Shin-E-Flor makes your dreams come true.

Focusing on the product is somehow seen as an infra dig thing to do in advertising as this ‘benefit laddering’ seems very tempting. In food & beverages, taste is the most common reason-why for consumers to choose a brand. But in the category advertising, focusing on taste is seen as common place and boring. Also, ‘so tasty it is irresistible’ or its variation ‘you will go to great lengths to get it’ – are common platforms in the cateogry advertising. It makes life difficult for fresher executions of that idea and so I am guessing the easy way out is to skip talking about the product altogether and focus on benefit laddering.

The 1985 Pepsi ad which cues ‘you will go to great lengths to get it’. There were several others which cued ‘Pepsi or nothing’. Such ads focused squarely on the product and not on an esoteric benefit.

3. Lip service to social causes

As I said earlier, advertising is creativity with a commercial angle. Unlike art of art’s sake, advertising has a clear business role to play – it has to help improve sales or brand affinity (which will have an impact on brand loyalty and therefore, sales). Of late, ‘going viral’ – that is being talked about in earned media has been a quest in itself. This has perhaps led to activism being seen as the currency to fame. In effect, it is faux activism as most often brands pay lip service to a cause and at best limit the investments to marketing communications that too for one season. In my view, the marketing team at Pepsi seems to have been caught up with all the media attention various protests agains the ‘authorities’ have gathered and decided to anchor the communication around them. But the role of the product in such a situation is not just tenuous but comical.

4. In-house agencies and brand content is no elixir

In-hosue agencies have been a thing for decades. In fact, Lintas began in 1899 as an in-house advertising agency for Lever Brothers, then a soap manufacturer in the UK. In India Reliance Industries had Mudra as its in-house agency before it became part of the DDB group. Companies believe that in-house agencies save costs and benefit from having a ‘dedicated’ team which has no other client as distraction. But there are cons to this approach too. An in-house agency team can be so attached to a brand that they lose objectivity or a larger perspective. They also do not have the benefit of a sounding board in the form of an external agency partner.

Branded content teams are all the rage in big corporates (common in travel and hospitality) now. Such agencies are responsible for content – usually, long form video about the category and the brand. In the larger scheme of things of a consumer least interested in ‘brand communication’ of any nature, creating something which is noticeable, relevant and drives home the brand message is all the more important. An in-house agency or a brand content team is no quick fix.

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