In 2002, Pepsi released an advertisement for its cola, featuring a young white boy, training with Shaolin monks. The boy struggles with his training. When he tries to hit a board, he injures his hand. His trainers shake their heads at his failure. He puts his head in his hands – devastated by his poor performance. The scene changes to a moment in the future. The audience sees the boy, all grown up. He breaks boards and stones effortlessly. He is powerful and graceful. The change seems remarkable. Then the audience sees what has caused the change.
The boy’s trainer raises a can of Pepsi to his lips. Then the boy and the rest of the monks in the arena with him raise cans of their own to their lips. They drink down the Pepsi. At the end of the commercial, the boy screams in frustration as he realizes his can is empty. He slams his head down, smashing the can with it. It leaves a mark on his forehead that is identical to a symbol on the heads of the other monks. This, apparently, is a rite of passage. The monks surround him, placing their hands on him and accepting them as one of their own.
This advertisement lends evidence to several of the claims activist Naomi Klein makes in her book No Logo. Klein asserts that large, multi-national corporations are now trying to sell consumers lifestyles, rather than just products. She also argues that they are harming communities and individuals – including children and the impoverished – by invading public and private spaces. Companies sometimes ignore the ethical cost of marketing. Klein relates the story of Nike’s attempt to turn a team of Kenyan Runners into Olympic cross-country skiing champions. According to Klein, “The journalists also heard accounts of how the climate change was so dramatic that the Kenyan’s skin cracked and their fingernails and toenails fell off”. This sacrifice, Klein suggests, was made so that Nike could capture the hearts and the advertising dollars of sports fans. (Klein, 1999, p. 54)
Klein is not the only figure who has voiced concern about the lack of ethics in marketing. Indeed, according to Rouvlaki, the scholars Kennedy and Lawton said that “marketing has taken the most criticism and carried the most doubt concerning moral and social responsibility issues” of all the fields associated with management. (Vassilikopoulou, Siomkos, & Rouvaki, 2008, p. 50) The Pepsi advertisement evinces this claim, by making it appear that Pepsi enhances athletic performance. It suggests to the viewer that without Pepsi, young boys are weak and unable to perform the same athletic feats as their counterparts. It suggests that without the aid of Pepsi, they will be rejected by their communities and be considered disappointments by those they respect. This may be particularly harmful to teenage boys and poorer populations. Teenagers often struggle to find acceptance. Those engaged in such struggles may be susceptible to such marketing. They may opt for products like Pepsi over healthier drinks because, subconsciously (or perhaps consciously) they believe that Pepsi enhances their performance instead of harming it.
The commercial makes the school the monks practice in seem beautiful and desirable. The camera pans from a beautiful pagoda to a bridge underneath it, to a trail beneath a breath-taking mountain. Natural Chinese landscapes fill the viewer with awe, while the footage of the martial arts practice itself is reminiscent of class martial arts films, which are likely to appeal to older audiences because of their nostalgic value and younger audiences because of their celebration of athleticism. The visuals are artistically appealing. All of the monks are dressed alike, with shaved heads and yellow uniforms. They move in unison, creating pleasing visual harmony that is both eye-catching and soothing. They also drink their Pepsis in unison – giving audiences the impression that “everybody’s doing it”. At the end, the actors congregate together around the young man, giving audiences an image of instant acceptance and community.
The visual effects also help draw the audience in. Quick cuts make the scenes showing the young man’s athletic efforts seem faster and more powerful. The speed of the film is slowed down during instances in which the man flips, giving the audience the impression that he is nearly flying. His acts may also be enhanced with CGI effects, as many of his flips seem impossibly fast and long-lasting. The scene is much like a Michael Jordan commercial that Klein describes, saying, “The freeze frame, the close-up and the quick cuts that allowed Jordan to appear to be suspended in mid-jump, providing the stunning illusion that he could actually take flight.” She says that by using these effects, Nike created the idea of a superior being, who could perform feats others couldn’t because of his athletic shoes. The young man in this commercial is another such super-being, beckoning others to become like him by buying Pepsi. (Klein, 1999, p. 52) It targets both those who hold an achiever lifestyle – by making them believe they may become better than they are by buying and using a certain product. It also appeals to those who have an inner directed lifestyle, who may believe that they can better achieve personal fulfilment with the aid of Pepsi’s products or by associating themselves with Pepsi’s brand.
Pepsi employs both fear and humor to make its commercial appeal to its audiences’ sensibilities. The advertisement is clearly a parody of serious martial arts films and the idea that the young man receives acceptance because of a mark left on his forehead caused by a smashed can is meant to be amusing. Meanwhile, the commercial plays of the fears teenagers have of being rejected. The emotions evoked by this ad are quite strong. Sad strings play throughout it, tugging at the audience’s heart. This is amplified by the clip in which the young boy, feeling defeated, puts his head in his hands in utter despair. Although the ad is mostly a humorous one – it is hard not to be moved by this gesture.
This ad ran in several different countries and must have been designed to appeal to a variety of audiences. It seems to be designed especially to appeal to teenage boys; however, its beauty and its soundtrack may make it appeal to broader audiences and its nostalgic images may appeal to older generations. The main purpose of the ad seems to be to make the consumer associate Pepsi with athleticism, strength, beauty and success. It is selling the consumer on a lifestyle in which Pepsi acts as a stimulant and a performance enhancer.
The Pepsi ad is deceptive and its deception comes at a cost. Just as Klein notes that Nike was willing to market its brand – even at the expense of the skin and nails of its Kenyan Olympians, Pepsi is willing to sell its product as a beneficial drink, when in reality Pepsi does little to enhance performance. It has little nutritional value and is packed with calories, which can contribute to health conditions which are extremely harmful to consumers. This is particularly harmful to poorer populations, as impressionable individuals may choose to spend what little they have on an unhealthy drink like Pepsi, rather than on a food product that might bring them real nutritional value, because they associate the Pepsi with enhanced performance, rather than the healthy food or drink which may actually enhance an individual’s performance.
Vassilikopoulou et al. advocate social ethics in marketing, through which advertisers try to balance their need to earn a profit with benefitting society by also including beneficial message in their advertisements. The Pepsi ad includes no such method. Instead, its focus seems to be purely on promoting Pepsi’s brand. (Vassilikopoulou, Siomkos, & Rouvaki, 2008, p. 51) Klein speaks of entrepreneur and Virgin CEO Richard Branson, creating a brand, not around products but, instead, upon reputation. (Klein, 1999, p. 54) Pepsi has done this too, basing its commercial, not on any real attributes of Pepsi, but on an idea it manufactures of Pepsi as being cool, enhancing and a key to acceptance.
While beautiful, inviting and humorous, Pepsi’s monk add may be harmful to vulnerable populations. It may make young men feel inadequate and it gives false promises to those who wish to achieve athletic success. Its visuals are disarming and its music is deeply appealing on an emotional level, but there is little behind it apart from branding. Pepsi could improve this add by adding a social message or by being more honest about the type of product it is advertising. Instead, by airing on television, its promises may invade the private spaces of young men and women who sit down to enjoy favorite TV shows and may make them feel inadequate.
While television advertisements may not be quite as invasive as Minority Report’s personalized advertisements, which call out to individuals by name, internet advertisements of the same businesses are beginning to be. Many take into account the consumer’s zip code and surfing habits. Facebook ads are particularly invasive. The Pepsi ad is, in some ways, a refreshing break from this kind of advertisement, because it seems less voyeuristic. Nevertheless, it does help inundate society with materialistic hopes and desires and, thereby, seems to confirm Klein’s message.
- Klein, N. (1999). No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Picador USA: New York.
- Vassilikopoulou, A., Siomkos, G., & Rouvaki, C. (2008, Winter). The Ethical and Unethical Dimensions of Marketing. Management Review: An International Journal, 3(2), 49-60.