First, let me say that I ain’t mad at Pepsi for trying to capitalize on millennials’ activism. They do, after all, have shareholders to report to. I’m mad that Pepsi didn’t pour consumerism down our throats (pun intended) in a way that made us want to drink the proverbial Kool-Aid. I’m mad that they weren’t smart enough to hire Dre from Black-ish to join their marketing team, which would have prevented them from being the lead story on an episode of Ads Gone Wild.
I’m sure that Dre would agree with me when I say that Pepsi’s ad fizzled out (#sorrynotsorry for another pun) because it failed to deliver a true, clear message that resonated with its intended audience. Pepsi, take a seat (not on United Airlines), and drink up these lessons from these companies that got it right:
1. OneUnited Bank
When I first saw Mona while scrolling on Facebook, my mouth literally dropped. She was fierce and powerful and black. Her eyes shouted, “Don’t mess with me,” and her fist showed why she was so fired up. She wanted you to know that Black Lives Matter and that Black Dollars Matter, too. All I could think was “YAYUUUSSS!” Whether she was sweating or crying, it didn’t matter. She reeked of strength, a strength that I wanted to possess.
The ad was unapologetically black and it took a clear side instead of trying to appease both the Black Lives Matter activists and the misguided Blue Lives Matter reactionists, like that misguided Pepsi ad. This ad encouraged us to “join the movement” by buying black and banking black. Teri Williams, the bank’s president, says that the company created the ad “to be public with who we are ... to be unapologetic.”
The campaign’s unapologetic nature did receive backlash, but not from its target demographic. Black millennials flocked to the bank and the movement in droves, in search of a woke bank that centered on the needs of their community. Williams asserts that they, too, believe that “our ice is colder.”
So cold it could go well in a ...
2. Budweiser (Anheuser-Busch)
Budweiser’s “Born the Hard Way” commercial debuted at the 2017 Super Bowl.
Although I ain’t a beer gal—moscato is my drink of choice—I had to give props to Anheuser-Busch for this ad. Yes, it felt contrived. I mean, violins playing in the background and a scene of the company’s co-founder Adolphus Busch being knocked around at the bottom of a boat in a tempestuous storm are techniques usually reserved for films seeking an Oscar nod, not a beer commercial. But despite the fact that this ad exercised creative license to portray Busch’s emigration from Germany, Budweiser found a way to connect the history of its brand to immigration, an issue close to the hearts of millions upon millions of Americans.
The company connected its history to legions of white Americans who proudly swap stories about their forefathers who immigrated here from Europe and to the legions of immigrants from Mexico, the African continent, and every part of the globe, who came seeking a better life for their families. Budweiser linked its brand to the concept of the American dream—the unrelenting idea that anyone from anywhere can be successful if he or she is willing to work hard, sacrifice and endure hardship, even if that includes racism. And through this—in its highlighting of racism—even I felt a connection to the ad. It was one of the few times I saw racism being acknowledged and condemned in a commercial by a major brand. I dug it, even though the ad felt a little forced.
When the backlash from right-wingers ensued, the company was able to stand by its ad with integrity because the commercial wasn’t launched just for the sake of sales, but instead was something that reflected the brand’s history and legacy. It was proof that telling the truth and shaming the devil can work, especially if you’re selling the devil’s water.
3. Cadillac (General Motors)
Cadillac’s “Carry” commercial debuted during the 2017 Academy Awards telecast.
I won’t say that Cadillac is a beloved brand of black folks, but my earliest childhood memories consist of being carted to my great-grandma Hattie’s 35-member Church of God in Christ church in her long, sleek, white Cadillac. She loved that car, and the church folks loved to look at her in it.
It’s obvious that the folks at General Motors wanted to appeal to the largest audience possible with this spot. They wanted to speak to middle America, older Americans, millennials, veterans, church folks and people of every hue. So they briefly acknowledged the discord in our country and then focused on the message of unity and how we carry one another, sprinkled in, of course, with pics of American icons with their Cadillacs, from the late Marilyn Monroe to the late Muhammad Ali.
Although I’m convinced our country needs a lot more than hope, I do understand that we won’t get anywhere unless we have it. I like to think of this Cadillac ad as President Barack Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, when he was that young, black-haired senator from Illinois. He sold his idealized version of America: the one that struggled to be great but was great in part because it was willing to struggle. He sold hope, hope bottled up and packaged in a biracial man.
Barack Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention (C-SPAN)
At a time when there’s not a lot of hope for the fate of our country, I can’t be mad at Cadillac for this. I’m hoping that the company is right. I hope that we will continue to find ways to carry one another—no matter our race, culture, religion or orientation. That would make America great.