Pepsi farce is a case of Stockholm Syndrome

10 Apr 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
Pepsi farce is a case of Stockholm Syndrome

Taken captive by its own organisational structure, Pepsi’s in-house agency forgot to ask the questions that ought to be asked, writes Dominic Mills. Plus: Why Sorrell is like a beef chow mein.

When there’s so much real news going on, and it’s better than fake news, it’s hard to believe that the BBC might devote three minutes of the 10 O’Clock News last Wednesday to Pepsi’s ad disaster.

It clearly matters in our small universe, but in the wider world...Pepsi versus Brexit/Syria/Trump/Ken Livingstone? Come on.

Still, if you want to indulge in a little schadenfreude, here is the ad in its full 2.40 minutes glory.

There’s nothing I can add to the scorn poured on Pepsi by social media citizens and ad professionals alike. Read Bob Hoffman’s piece headlined ‘Pepsi takes clueless to the next level’.

But what intrigues me is how something as daft as this could happen. Yes, as Hoffman points out, Pepsi has an uncanny ability to shoot itself in the foot. But still. It’s a huge corporation, with some very clever people, and a legacy of great advertising (more of which later).

But dig a little deeper and the answer, I think, is revealed. It’s case of Stockholm Syndrome, the condition whereby hostage or kidnap victims develop trust or affection for their captors and abusers. It was first coined after a robber took four hostages during a failed bank raid. After, none of them would testify against him.

How does this work in the case of Pepsi? Well, the ad was produced in-house by Pepsi’s very own studio, aka Creators League Studio.

And Creators League Studio answers to one Brad Jakeman, president of Pepsi’s global beverage unit, although perhaps for not much longer.

Jakeman is a self-professed marketing Pol Pot who, judging by his fiery speech to the ANA in 2015, wants to blow up the entire advertising universe. Last year he laid down the law to ad agencies at Cannes: “I've been asking the advertising industry now for years...to evolve their models...And they haven't. So we've done it ourselves,” he said, referring to Creators League.

But here’s the thing about these blowhards: in their quest to reset the clock at year zero they destroy the good as well as the bad, and they cannot bring themselves to admit a single blemish in their vision.

So when your boss talks like that, it’s not hard to see how the poor wage slaves at Pepsi’s in-house agency fall into line, and surrender all objectivity as they pursue Jakeman’s insane vision.

Here’s a really good piece from the New York Times by former adman Nathaniel Friedman on what happens when big clients want to get all edgy without offending anyone.

But where was the creative or account director raising the questions no-one else dared:

“Hold on, are we saying Pepsi can bring world peace?”

“Are we saying Kendall Jenner is the go-to girl for racial harmony?”

“Isn’t it condescending to feature a hijab-clad Muslim woman?”

“Have we asked any black, Asian or Muslim people what they think? Perhaps we should.”

And “Er, can we just pause on this for a moment...?”.

But no. And that’s the thing with Stockholm Syndrome and Pepsi. The in-house agency is taken captive, figuratively and literally, by the organisational structure and dare not ask the questions that ought to be asked.

It’s possible that the creatives at Creators Studio League loathed the end product as much as the public did. But they said nothing. Why? Well, if they had they would have been condemned as heretics and expelled.

Of course you cannot 100% guarantee that an outside agency - BBDO, for example, author of some brilliant work for Pepsi - would have not been steamrollered, but I like to think that one of the benefits of the best client/agency relationships is that the agency has an outside perspective, can bring objectivity to bear, and is brave enough to fight its corner.

Here’s a BBDO classic for Pepsi from years ago featuring a Pepsi and a Coke truck driver who meet while they’re on the road. It’s warm, it’s human, it’s funny, and completely believable. Someone should make Jakeman watch it:

P.S. Here’s a wacky thought: maybe, in the light of furore surrounding YouTube ads funding extremist videos, Pepsi was hoping that the ad would appear on, say, various Isis channels and all of a sudden world peace would break out.

Hmm, OK, on reflection...maybe not.

Sorrell: he’s like a beef chow mein

I don’t imagine Sir Martin Sorrell’s ego needs too much stroking. Except perhaps when mean and small-minded investors take a stand against his entirely reasonable pay deals, or he is forced to rein in his legal enforcers against the likes of Ebiquity.

But, say he has a temporary 3am outbreak of self-doubt, then he can turn to last week’s edition of Shortlist magazine, and its special Power Issue, for comfort.

Now as much as I admire Shortlist, it’s an unlikely place to find an encomium to the Master of the Advertising Universe, but inside you will find Joe Mackertich penning an editor’s letter that lays bare his love, respect etc for the man.

“Who’s the most powerful man you’ve ever met?” asks Mackertich in rhetorical vein. “Mine is Sir Martin Sorrell, the everlasting lord of all advertising. During our strange 20-minute chat I felt as though I was becoming richer and more powerful by osmosis. It was like bathing in the rays of a mercilessly burning sun of pure capitalism, and when I came out the other side I felt ready to dominate, to defeat, to profit [his italics].”

So far, so good. I’m loving Mackertich’s analogies.

But then he spoils it somewhat by adding: "Of course, the effects wore off after an hour.”

Perhaps Mackertich was being polite, but were he to stick with the analogies he would, I think, be comparing Sir Martin to a dish of beef chow mein.

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