The Resistance Is Not For Sale: Decoding Racially Charged Ads


Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

Advertisers have long tried to capitalize on popular culture in an attempt to capture the energy of the moment.

Last week, they tried again.

Two national advertisements attempted to generate buzz, and revenue, by capitalizing on popular culture in the worst ways: Pepsi and Nivea. The two ads are stunning examples of the ways the marginalization of people of color and racial hierarchy are woven into the fabric of our national discourse.

Controversial Nivea ad that features the back of a white woman and reads "white is purity"

Advertising, at its best, can reflect a rosy, facelifted view of ourselves. Unfortunately, in these two cases, the two companies were oblivious to the racial nature of their advertisements. As a result, both ads seek to present us with a whitewashed version of culture, lacking in inclusion or representation. Even worse, they imply a world where whiteness lifts us to another level – if only Black Lives Matter protestors had the forethought to bring a Kardashian sibling and a can of Pepsi when pleading for equality, safety, and their own humanity.

The two ads are stunning examples of the ways the marginalization of people of color and racial hierarchy are woven into the fabric of our national discourse.

The Pepsi ad, widely seen online before it was withdrawn by Pepsi, was produced by the corporation’s tone-deaf in-house ad agency, hammering home the need for a diversity of voices and points of view in creative teams – at advertising firms, in television and film writing rooms, or in newspaper and magazine editorial teams. This need is captured perfectly on Twitter:

Tweet calling for Pepsi to hire diversity consultants

Tweet about why cultural diversity is needed in advertising and digital media

In the Nivea ad, released initially in the Middle East, the visual is clearly intended to be evocative of cleanliness and innocence, but it’s no coincidence it was applauded by racists. The ignorance of a tagline that conflates whiteness with purity in an era of increased racial division is breathtaking.

Moreover, last week’s ads perfectly exemplify the need for training in implicit bias and education about the high stakes for cultural moments throughout creative and cultural producers. If only the director of the Pepsi ad had the good fortune to have made this call first.

It’s more important than ever that we a) vote with our pocketbook, holding corporations accountable for what they add to the cultural conversation; b) strike while the iron’s hot to call out these moments of corporate cluelessness while the conversation is being had; and c) use these moments to promote a positive and inclusive image of our society.