PEPSI DOES THE RIGHT THING. And Just What IS the Right Thing, Anyway?

The headline reads, “John Smith Accused of Financial Improprieties.”  “Oh, no!” you think—and you (and many other customers) quickly withdraw any money you’ve invested through John Smith. 

 Later in the week, in a small box on page 5, the newspaper prints a correction.  The person who has run afoul of the law is John Smythe.   Few readers ever notice the retraction, though, and John Smith’s reputation is seriously damaged.

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 Words have power.  That’s why I decided to address this positive story in the same large-font headline as my original complaint, rather than just letting the Frito-Lay spokesman respond to my blog post in the “Comments” section. 

 I know that many of my readers made their voices heard regarding the over-the-top Pepsi commercial titled “Feed Your Flock.”  And I know that PepsiCo and Frito-Lay responded quickly, assuring their critics that this was not a Pepsi-generated commercial, that it was not one of the finalists in their contest, and that it would not be shown on Super Bowl Sunday. 

 Well and good.  Some friends noted that the carefully worded text (“we’re sorry IF you were offended…”) places the blame on the hypersensitive viewer, rather than on PepsiCo; but if I were the p.r. guy charged with deflecting criticism and placing a positive spin on this, I’d probably take that approach, too.

 Personally, I’m glad the commercial will come to an ignominious end on the cutting room floor.  At the same time, I’ve gotta give some points for the sheer professionalism of the ad:  lots of character actors, yet a clear focus, good angles, crisp product placement.  Too bad all that talent was expended on a commercial that was so politically incorrect.

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Now, Part 2:  What Is the Right Thing to Do?  There’s been some spirited discussion on the part of my friends over at the Cocktail Party of the Ethernet (aka Facebook), and I’d like to weigh in. 

 First, some things on which we agree:

  •  We agree that the First Amendment protects our “right” to say things which may be perceived by some as offensive. 
  • We agree that denigrating or making fun of African-Americans with watermelon jokes or demeaning epithets, Jews with money jokes, or Polish-Americans with jokes about their heavy accents may be hurtful, and therefore, not appropriate in polite society.
  • We agree that even if it’s not funny, you have the “right” to tell said joke.
  • We agree that it’s not politically expedient to exercise said “right” in the public square, and we would not consider telling the offensive stories in our offices, workplaces, or houses of worship, for fear of the negative reactions of others.   
  • We agree that we would not want our tax dollars to go toward a campaign of blatant discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender. 
  • Likewise, we agree that corporate sponsors legally may—but prudentially should not—use the profits gleaned from sales to us and to our fellow Americans to support organizations or ideas with which we strongly disagree. 
  • And we agree that citizens have the corresponding “right”—if they disapprove of how a corporation is spending its profits—to take their business elsewhere. 

 With so many points of agreement, then, I was surprised at the level of disagreement regarding the Pepsi contest entry.

 I want to clearly differentiate between being “immune to criticism” and being “deserving of respect.”  The U.S. Bishops, for example, may be criticized for their naïveté in listening to the psychologist “advisors” who told them pedophilia could be “cured,” or for their cautious handling of the crisis in the months following disclosure.  They do, though, deserve our respect; they must be respected as representatives of Christ here on earth. 

 All of this is to say:  I love Pepsi.  Not Pepsi Max, the subject of this advertisement, which pumps me up, then throws me into a tailspin; but plain ol’ Pepsi.  However, if three cents of every dollar I spend for their product is used to mock my faith, well, then I start feeling just a little sensitive—and I have the “right” to spend my junk food dollars elsewhere.  That’s purely business, and a smart entrepreneur will not want to risk his corporate profits just to protect his “right” to make a tasteless joke. 

 Good riddance, “Feed Your Flock”!

  • John Flynn

    I thought it was a very well done and funny commercial. However I’ve also laughed at off color or racial jokes. That doesn’t make it right, just funny.

    I personally have a tough skin and didn’t find the commercial offensive. However, think about it this way. What if the commercial mocked out the Jewish faith, the Islamic faith, Blacks, gay people etc in the same “funny, light hearted” way? believe me people would be in an outrage.

    For some reason it’s still okay to make fun of one group and that is Catholics.

  • Kelly Thatcher

    Personal disclosure: I’m in advertising.

    I’m also, more importantly, a Catholic.

    That said, my biggest cause for criticism? The ad wasn’t that good. It had major problems in accuracy, which turned the humor of it on the iffy side.

    The client turned the ad down, in my opinion, more because it wasn’t that good. Oh sure, they didn’t want to risk a *major* offense, but let’s face it: had the ad been really, really good, it might’ve had a shot.

    As for “offending Catholics,” I think it’s important to defend the Faith. But there’s a difference between defending the faith and defending folks from being offended. Jesus never promised us a rose garden, to adopt a cliche, and if I spent time objecting to persecution I’d never get anything else done…like, for example, defending the Faith.