The shocker is that it took someone at a soda company this long to tap the current moment of political struggle for a campaign like the one that got Twitter all freaking out last night. And probably today. Any maybe even tomorrow if the filibuster holds.
The use of a protest as a backdrop for Kendall Jenner's political a-woke-ning is but one of the profoundly fucked elements of this profoundly fucked piece of filmmaking, in which "Pepsi Celebrates Life’s 'Live For Now™' Moments With New Short Film 'Jump In' Featuring American Fashion Model and TV Personality Kendall Jenner." In case you haven't seen it, please enjoy below, where discussion will follow.
Where to begin?
How about with the protest itself, which is not a protest, but a "protest." It's not about Black Lives Mattering or Women demanding equal treatment under the law. It's just meant to smell like that. The signs say "Join the Conversation" and "Love" and everyone is attractive and ambling along to the sound of "Lions," by Skip Marley.
Jenner, in a white-blonde wig (no accident there) is moved by the siren song of activism (and a handsome, right-on guy giving her the nod) to doff her wig and bail on the shoot (there goes another $50K!) to join the fray. Moments later, she's giving a Pepsi to a cop, who chugs it down thirstily, and all is
vanity harmony once again. Thanks, Mr. Pepsi.
No one needs to be told any of the 4,627 ways this is a completely repellent scenario for even a soda commercial to portray. No one needs to be reminded that borrowing the iconography of the hippies putting flowers in National Guardsmen's rifles, or, in the more recent past, the stunning photo of Ieshia Evans fronting off to backpedaling-ass riot cops at a Black Lives Matter protest in Baton Rouge last July is the height of artistic corruption, and that the clip's director, Michael Bernard, should be deeply ashamed of what he has wrought here.
Everyone with eyes knows that the enlistment of images, language, tone, and "vibe" is the entire alphabet of advertising's lexicon. The only variable is to what degree the viewer chooses to object. As time goes by, the objection tends to decrease. In 1984, a Ridley Scott clip equated the arrival of the Macintosh computer with the smashing of totalitarianism. Three years later, Nike bummed out a world of Beatles fans by calling for "Revolution." Twenty years later, Pepsi encourages us to "Live for Now," join the march, but don't forget that the cops who are there to crush your skull for no reason have taste buds, too.
And you hardly need to be a Baffler subscriber to think of the countless instances in between that equated consumption of this or that cigarette, tampon, or credit card with freedom and rebellion.
What's interesting, if that word may "join the conversation," is the way this kind of cred vampirism has already entered the process of self-documentation that attends protests against Trump and his minions.
The spectacle of people struggling to fit their signs in their selfies while holding an appropriately concerned facial expression will be familiar to anyone who has gone out to protest any of the major policy initiatives that have erupted over the past three months. The overwhelming, disorienting onslaught of things worth opposing—as well as the utter certainty that the most powerful people refuse on principle to listen to the opposition—has further complicated the complicated question of what marching is.
Is it symbolic? Is it gestural? Is it effective? Is it fighting? It can obviously be all of those things. Rather, it must be all of those things. And this asinine commercial won't change the truth, or the potency of that.
Still, there's something in "Live For Now Moments" that feels worse than it should. The narrative is embarrassing. The stolen iconography is inexcusable. But in the sense that all political participation—especially public protest—involves a component of self-advertisement, it's worth considering how near a miss this spot actually is.
Consider Jonathan Bachman's astonishing photo of Iesha Evans that the commercial has the gall to use as a reference. When the image went viral, my erstwhile colleague Jen Graves observed that:
“In the dreamscape of the photo, the Black woman stands against an army. Those numbers make her the ultimate minority: the individual against the state. Some have said the photograph looks like a Beyoncé video. There is a point to that, but Beyoncé does wield actual power. She is a star. The photograph of an unknown woman is a piece of generative fiction that earns its importance by the opposition of the immediately adjacent facts. When the shutter closes, Evans is arrested, removed, and returned to powerlessness.
The picture is a fairy tale, not a documentation.”
Obviously, fairy tales make better ad copy than documentation does. The wholesale rejection of this commercial by the more outspoken quarters of social media is a happy reminder that even if we sometimes fail to parse the difference between those two forms, we still have it in us to object when the distinction is erased in an effort to try and sell us something.
Of course, several ads have already tried to shoplift the patina of wokeness of late. During the Super Bowl, Airbnb proclaimed that "The world is more beautiful the more you accept."
So did the NFL itself:
It's a 10 Haircare, meanwhile, offered a joke: "America we’re in for four years of awful hair so it’s up to you to do your part."
Trump anxiety was whirring at such a feverish frequency in those days that the outrage was more muted, or maybe just drowned out by all the screaming. Still, if the election taught us anything, it's that the single most important key to success is repetition. Using the language of important matters to sell products is despicable. But it can't happen without our permission, in ways big and small. And I'm not talking about the power of the purse. Every time someone uses the word "brand" without reflection, or describes writing/music/ideas as "content," or endorses the view that the fashion industry is an art form, or posits freedom as something that can be bought or sold, they are participating in the erosion of meaning, and helping to pave the way for ads likely not to reflect reality, but to conceal it altogether.
And P.S. "You're just playing into their hands by circulating this clip, which is all they wanted in the first place!" is not a critique, junior. What "they" actually "want" is not my concern, nor should it be yours. The thing exists. It reflects our world. Getting real about that is a way of honing one's perception so that the next time it comes along, which should be any instant now, we'll be better prepared to dismiss it for the right reasons.