This was an interesting week for corporate advertisers. The best and worst of the role they play in the public discourse was on full display. As public uproar emerged after Bill O’ Reilly was exposed as a misogynist sexual harasser, dozens of companies announced they would no longer be advertising on his show. Pepsi, on the other hand, put out a commercial that portrays Kendall Jenner essentially using a can of Pepsi to solve race-related issues in America. In the commercial, Jenner leads a social protest against an aggressive-looking police force. She then easily solves the violence by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi.
Pepsi was attempting to piggyback on the public support for a popular social issue to boost its reputation as a socially conscious company. However, by capitalizing on this activism, Pepsi marginalized the Black Lives Matter Movement.
With the Bill O’ Reilly backlash, corporate advertisers used their clout to fight for justice. They showed Fox News that there would be financial consequences if his shows continued to air on the network.
This provides a perspective to understand why Pepsi failed, beyond the obviously tone-deaf aspect of the commercial. Pepsi did not take a meaningful stance on a social issue. Rather, they tried to insert Pepsi into a social issue for profit. Pepsi thought it could pull one over the American people by making it seem as if the company was marching side-by-side with the Black Lives Matter movement. Pepsi merely used Black Lives Matter and other activist marches to sell soda. It is clear that Pepsi did not genuinely care about the underlying social issues at play but instead attempted to trivialize, commercialize and profit off of the recent protests.
The corporate advertisers who pulled out from the O’Reilly show understood this. They didn’t try to make their action seem as if it was anything more than a public relations stunt. In fact, the specific companies that did so received minimal media attention. If O’ Reilly does get taken off the air, these individual advertisers will receive little credit compared to the movement at large.
Despite the lack of public attention, their actions did have significant impact. As the profits from the O’ Reilly show decrease, the brass at Fox News will face tough decisions between ideological backing for O’ Reilly and profit motives.
Corporate advertisers should be honest with the public. We know their main priority is profit, but having a social consciousness in the periphery is a realistic endeavor. No one likes when they try to make a whole ad campaign out of a social issue. However, small actions such as pulling an ad from a sexual harasser’s broadcasts can be effective, even if it isn’t the loudest horn to toot.
Ryan Steinberg is a freshman majoring in political science.