In April 2017 the corporate overlords at PepsiCo rolled out a nearly three-minute video clip projecting a vague idea of solidarity toward nothing in particular. Featuring a diverse cast of telegenic young people and starring none other than superstar Kendall Jenner, the segment foregrounds a gathering vaguely encoded as a protest march thanks to a few raised fists and a handful of signs showcasing a series of not exactly firebrand demands such as “Join the Conversation.”
At video’s end, the glamorous Jenner glides gracefully toward a phalanx of uniformed police to share a cold can of Pepsi with an officer, to general approval from everyone involved. As the camera fades to the tune of Skip Marley’s “Lions,” the Pepsi logo appears and viewers are invited to Live For Now®.
Virtually everything about the ad, from premise to staging to sheer existence, is absurd from start to finish. As corporate self-parody, it was nothing short of an Olympic-level performance that the finest satirists at Clickhole or The Onion couldn’t have matched if they tried. Tone-deaf and painful to watch even by the cavernously low standards of social justice–themed corporate cringe, and rather shamelessly appropriating imagery from Black Lives Matter, it elicited a fierce enough backlash to be taken down in record time but continues to live on in the popular memory as a kind of gold standard for capitalist wokeness gone awry.
That may well change in the coming days as crowds of ordinary Americans courageously take to the streets in a series of increasingly assertive protests against police brutality and systemic racism while a chorus of corporate brands offers up vague displays of support on social media. Running the gamut from the poles of well-meaning-but-absurd to downright sociopathic, the comms teams at various corporate HQs are already working overtime to align themselves with the wider cause of racial justice and make known their general commitment to inclusion.
Pringles Chips went dark on Twitter for #BlackOutTuesday. The official Star Wars account released a short statement in support of black employees and artists. @Barbie pledged to champion diversity and declared her solidarity with the entire black community. Toronto-based restaurant GarfieldEATS, meanwhile, tweeted an image of the eponymous cat’s sullen eyeballs accompanied by the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, as if to suggest that the infamously lazy and glutinous feline dislikes discrimination almost as much as he hates Mondays.
To give the brands their due, some of these efforts seem well-intentioned — after all, if commercial enterprises are offering nominal endorsement of anti-racism, that’s obviously better than the alternative. The burlesque absurdity of reading messages of inclusion drafted by the branding specialists at Call of Duty: Warzone and FritoLay aside, there’s something less innocuous about the way particular companies inevitably seize on anything social justice–tinged as an opportunity for the most transparently cynical exercises in PR.
This includes corporate leviathans like Amazon, which proudly touts its commitment to diversity and opposition to discrimination while underpaying its workers and treating many people of color in its employ like less than garbage. It includes McKinsey, which (among other things) eagerly offered its services to the Trump administration’s brutal immigration agenda and advised Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to restrict the caloric intake of migrants held in detention camps while earlier this week issuing a statement that condemned “racism, hatred, and prejudice” in every form. It includes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has evidently developed a severe case of amnesia about his contemptible response when San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to take a knee for civil rights.
Hypocritical, sinister, or simply absurd as the case may be, the irresistible reflex of corporate brands to insert themselves into popular causes raises a real issue about the commodification of social justice and the way everything from poverty to racial discrimination is supposed to have a market solution — even, or especially, when the companies themselves are directly complicit in the problem.
Patently ridiculous though it was, the now infamous Pepsi video was a kind of extreme case study in what happens when market forces spend the better part of four decades cannibalizing everything in their path, from entitlements and trade union rights to the conceptual repertoires of social justice and intersectionality. When the very idea of society is corroded in the name of market efficiency, the available lexicon to authentically express anything inevitably shrinks to the point that everything must be bent around the soulless logic of money and corporate brands. It’s thanks to this takeover that even the most patently evil companies on earth can display floats at LGBTQ Pride and that big corporate blockbusters are now seen as a central terrain of cultural struggle while genuine or programmatic resistance to inequality and racism is marginalized and ignored.
More acutely than anything else to date, Pepsi’s risible effort to commodify social justice perfectly encapsulated the market ethos that now so inescapably pervades American society, wherein even the iconography of dissent and inclusion is seamlessly slid in right next to the logo of your favorite carbonated beverage, ecommerce app, hookup service, or laser-guided munitions manufacturer.
In this Pepsi-fied rendering of America, heavily armed police, Black Lives Matter activists, celebrities, and ordinary citizens alike coalesce around an airbrushed imagery of social harmony and frictionless protest, all of it facilitated by a profitable sugary soft drink made by a multibillion-dollar corporation. In the real America, meanwhile, the combined forces of market capitalism and institutional racism conspire to sustain inequality and prejudice while repressing activists and ordinary citizens alike.
Big companies discriminate, union-bust, underpay their employees, and generally treat America’s vast and diverse working class like shit. Behind the woke smokescreens of Big Philanthropy and intersectional HR pablum, their corporate political action committees pour contribution after contribution into the coffers of establishment politicians, Democratic and Republican alike, who uphold a morally indefensible status quo, while their armies of lobbyists and consultants ensure that no one’s need for health care, housing, or basic dignity ever transgresses against the bottom line.
This is why, as cops brutalize marginalized Americans and those Americans collectively resist, there will be plenty of vague calls for inclusion from corporate PR departments but very few threats to claw back political contributions or demands on political leadership to carry out necessary measures like the defunding of city police departments gorged on Rambo-esque arsenals of military-grade hardware.
The ubiquity of a single commodity in any marketplace inevitably brings down its value — and, as the past week has shown, social justice of the brand-washed and trademarked variety is both a cheap and omnipresent commodity in the hyper-marketized, hyper-carceral version of America that exists today. It’s hardly incidental that, amid this deluge, the real kind continues to be in dangerously short supply.