Pepsi Fumbles Context of NFL Playoffs

Context and relevancy are supposed to be the next big things. But even in the world of TV, where programming is known months in advance, brands still drop the ball — like Pepsi did in the NFL conference championship broadcasts last week.

Context and relevancy are supposed to be the next big things. But to actually serve contextually relevant content isn’t just a challenge for personalized, digital media. Even in the world of TV, where programming is known months in advance, brands still drop the ball — like Pepsi did in the NFL conference championship broadcasts last week.

For Sunday’s NFC Championship game in Philadelphia, played between the Minnesota Vikings and the Philadelphia Eagles, Pepsi seemed to run just one commercial: A Dallas Cowboys spot that ran at least three times during the game in the Philadelphia area:

So, OK, somewhere the ad buyer said, “This is an NFL game, run our best performing NFL commercial.” What’s the big deal?

Well, that was silly for a bunch of reasons. Not least of which is that the Cowboys didn’t even make the playoffs this year. So, most of their fans aren’t tuning in.

What makes it even worse is this was a game that drew heavy Minnesota and Philadelphia audiences. Sure, fans from across the country watched too, but I bet Philly and Minnesota fans made up half of the audience.

And all of those viewers have one thing in common: They don’t like the Dallas Cowboys.

Minnesota fans have some history with Dallas.

And Eagles fans … well former Eagle Bennie Logan said it best:

Former Eagle Bennie Logan on the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry.
Former Eagle Bennie Logan on the Eagles-Cowboys rivalry.

Pepsi running this commercial over and over again to Eagles and Vikings fans isn’t just ineffective, it’s insulting. Pepsi might as well have run a Coke ad.

The thing is, in the past, this was OK. You may even think it’s OK today. But it’s not going to be OK tomorrow.

If we’re going to meet the challenges of relevance at the personal level, we need to get our heads out of the sand about marketing at the macro level. You’re never going to bring effective relevancy to your digital content if you can’t recognize that a Dallas commercial was a bad idea this playoff season.

Understand what’s going on with your audience when they’re engaging with your marketing. Why are they there? What do they need? What’s happening around them? That’s what’s going to make your marketing stand out in the years ahead.

How Not to Be a Tone-Deaf Brand

Pepsi is clearly not the only brand to take a wrong turn in their ads or other communications. A few recent examples include Match.com, Nivea, and most recently, United Airlines. The Internet is poised to identify, amplify and vilify brands that make these kinds of mistakes. So, how can a brand avoid being tone deaf?

A lot of news sources have already unpacked and dissected the many missteps in the recent Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad. It was live for all of one day, but it will live on in brand infamy forever. Here are a few of the sources covering the cringe-worthy effort, if you want to dig deeper into this example:

Nivea "White Is Purity"
The official Nivea page on Facebook is putting out ‘pro skin whitening’ adverts with the slogan ‘white is purity’
Source: Facebook

Pepsi is clearly not the only brand to take this kind of wrong turn in their ads or other communications. A few recent examples include Match.com’s misguided characterization of red hair, freckles, or eye color as imperfections, as well as Nivea’s portrayal of “White is Purity” that earned immediate online fury. Most recently, United Airlines compounded their operational, planning and basic humanity missteps with a decidedly tone-deaf CEO communication that instead of calming the public outcry further fueled it.

The Internet is poised to identify, amplify and vilify brands that make these kinds of mistakes. Meanwhile consumers marvel at how, in this day and age, brand and creative strategists make the poor decisions that pass the many layers of consideration and reviews of these expensive efforts. It’s a fair question.

So, how can a brand avoid being tone deaf?

The Brief

If your ad vision and subsequent brief’s objective is to tune into recent global trends or to otherwise tack onto complex societal issues, go back to the drawing board. You are not qualified to establish world peace, nor is it your brand mission. You can brag a bit about a sincere and established philanthropic effort or partnership, but that right is only earned after you have had a real world impact. Better yet, promote the effort, rather than the brand, and let the public laud you indirectly. The halo effect is very flattering.

If you have doubts about an approach or messaging platform under consideration, now is the time to trust your gut and voice those doubts. Spend some time and resources testing consumer reaction to get a direct read on how your vision could be perceived.