Controversy often sells—but not always. We've said it before and we'll say it again: advertisers want to get you thinking and talking about their products, even when what you and your peers may be thinking and saying isn't always positive. As long as a brand is on the mind, it may well be on the conveyor belt at the grocery store, in the digital shopping cart, or punched on that vending machine down the hall. That's why companies often turn to ads that may be sexualized, off-color, ludicrous, or even a bit offensive.
But when a company's commercial does more than just confuse, upset, or offend a select number of people but instead rubs most folks the wrong way, that's when it bubbles over into controversy. And controversy can leave a bad enough taste in people's mouths that ads backfire, leading to a drop in sales instead of a boost. That's precisely what happened with some of these ads released over the years by PepsiCo. In other cases, these controversial Pepsi ads and commercials may have seemed anodyne or even positive in their day, but they aged as well as milk.
"Live for Now"—the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad
The gift of a single serving of Pepsi cannot actually engender peace among all humankind. However, that seemed to be the message of one of the highest budget and most tone-deaf Pepsi commercials ever made. The 2017 spot starred reality TV person Kendall Jenner and, to put it briefly, showed her effectively quelling a riot (with racial undertones) by giving a cop in riot gear a Pepsi. This ad angered victims of police violence, supporters of the BLM movement, supporters of police—and just about everyone else, too. Jenner herself later apologized for the commercial.
Drink Pepsi, ladies, to stay thin
This Pepsi commercial from the year 1957 is very much from a different era. It would be comical if this was a parody made for a show about the 50s, instead of being an actual Pepsi commercial aimed at American women. The ad suggests that women should drink a Pepsi instead of eating because that will help keep them trim. Plus, it directly implies that it's a woman's duty to stay trim in order to be a good woman for her man. It's wildly sexist, and that's the main problem. The other issue? As we know well today, a sugar-laden soda is hardly a good way to maintain a healthy weight, which we should all strive to do for its own intrinsic benefit.
The Cindy Crawford spot
This 1992 vintage Pepsi ad may not have stirred up much controversy at the time, but it has aged poorly. The ad shows a pair of young boys, ogling supermodel Cindy Crawford, who was in her mid-20s at the time, as she seductively enjoys a can of cold Pepsi. The joke is that in the end, the boys were admiring the new design of the Pepsi can, which is better than preteen boys objectifying a woman, but the intent was obvious.
Madonna's "Like a Prayer" ad
In 1989, the worlds of art and advertising fully came together when Madonna's smash hit song "Like a Prayer" was featured in a Pepsi commercial aired during the 31st annual Grammy Awards. It was a pretty calculated moneymaking move; there was really no reason to connect Pepsi and Madonna other than to use her fame to sell soda (and for her it meant $5 million). The real problem came the next day when the official music video for "Like a Prayer" dropped—unlike the wholesome, happy scenes in the commercial, it was highly sexualized and, in the eyes of many, highly irreverent (burning crosses, e.g.) and Pepsi was immediately tied to the ad and the scandalous star.
Pepsi MAX misses the mark
This ad starts off fine, with a woman trying to encourage her partner's healthier habits in coarse but comical ways, like swapping his cheeseburger for soap and stuffing his face in a pie. Where it goes way awry is when the man, an African American apparently in his 40s or so, ogles a young Caucasian woman in the park, causing his also Black partner to try to strike him with a can of soda, which accidentally knocks the young lady unconscious instead. It is tone-deaf and mildly racist.
The premise of this Pepsi ad is solid enough: a kid buys two cans of Coke to prop himself up tall enough to buy reach a vending machine button for one can of Pepsi. But when you really look closely at it, there is a lot that's pretty messed up about it. The area the child lives looks to be rundown and impoverished, and here we have a little kid all by himself spending money on sugary sodas.
Perhaps the most racist and sexist ad of recent memory, this Mountain Dew spot—remember that Mountain Dew is a PepsiCo brand—is just wrong on every level. The ad, which was actually a series of a few spots, featured a battered woman trying to identify her assailant in a lineup, but too scared to call him out, evidently afraid of more abuse. The suspect is a goat, which is supposed to be funny, except he is voiced by an actor putting on a stereotypical "street" persona. And the goat is flanked in the lineup entirely by African American men. Little wonder this ad caused outrage and was soon pulled.