The internet erupted in one of its regular furies of indignation last week after Pepsi released a new television advertisement. The video stars the model and reality TV star Kendall Jenner, who is depicted in the middle of an inexplicable photo-shoot on a footpath while a street protest processes by. This protest is unlike any I have ever been a part of, with baffling displays of break-dancing and a very prominent part played by a cellist. Kendall ends up abandoning her job to join the marchers, before defusing what could be a fraught stand-off between some of the most photogenic protesters in history and the police by offering a very handsome young officer a can of Pepsi.With shalom established, the ad closes by commanding us to “Live bolder. Live louder. Live for now.” It leaves unstated what role carbonated sugar water plays in such a philosophy.
What marks this furore out from others is the way in which it seemed to unite people from all points along the cultural and political spectra in shared scorn. The left-wing New Statesman magazine forensically examined the “23 things wrong” with the ad. The right-wing website The Federalist was similarly thorough as it interpreted the video as “everything that’s wrong with millennials”. Political activists like Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, were also provoked as she tweeted speculatively about how different things might have been if only her father knew “about the power of Pepsi”.
Before I could ponder the meaning of this very strange marketing campaign, I had to figure out who Kendall Jenner was. (The depressing realisation that one is middle-aged comes with unmistakable force when the sheer existence of globally-famous pop-cultural megastars can be missed.) As an advertising campaign, one cannot help but suspect that every aspect of it was perfectly calibrated to produce the exact response and reaction that it engendered. Consider how many cola advertisements – conceived with determined creativity and executed with technical proficiency – have entered into your sub-conscious without recognition? This one did not even have to air on the television and it has probably garnered more publicity for Pepsico than any campaign in their history.
Yet this Pepsi ad, whose vapidity is so pure it is almost transcendent, is not even the most interesting cola marketing campaign released in the past week. In China, Coca Cola launched a new gimmick where their cans featured the faces of celebrities who have claimed to enjoy the drink. Introducing their “Cherry Cola” flavour into the world’s largest market, Coke were looking for someone to be the face of this new brand. They approached the 86 year-old American billionaire investor Warren Buffett, whose firm Berkshire Hathaway holds 10% of Coke shares. He is well-known as a Coke drinker, having already serenaded the world on YouTube with a version of a famous ad from the 1970s. Buffett agreed.
In the free-market democracy of the United States of America, an ad “celebrating” the citizen’s freedom to protest is derided and in the notionally Communist China, a marketing campaign based around lionizing an octogenarian billionaire goes down a treat. Globalised capitalism is many things, but it is not predictable!
These two ads appear to pursue very different trajectories – youth contrasted with age, protest contrasted with aspiration – but they turn out to be as similar to each other in their foundation as are the two famous colas. Both tell us nothing about the product in question, instead they tell us something about us, the purchasers. Even if we are so comfortable that we have time to get angered by a cola advertisement, we want to live in a world of free protest, where our lives our invested with meaning by the cauldron of conflict, albeit conflict soluble with naught but some random acts of generosity. Even if we are comrades in a utopian Communist project, we want to live long lives of unimaginable wealth.
What these ads have in common, despite their superficial differences and outcomes, is how they transparently expose the way in which capitalism functions today to discipline our desire. Capitalism cannot be satisfied with just convincing you to buy things. For profits to keep growing (and profits must continue to grow), new markets need to be created. And the way that a new market gets made is by making you and I want something we never thought to want before. Capitalism shapes our desire by tapping into our deepest values – in these instances that we would be engaged citizens or that we would be successful business people – and exploiting them for profit.
Cast in this light, Kendall Jenner’s advertisement and Warren Buffett’s face-on-a-can take on a distinctively theological hue. Capitalism’s colonisation of our affections represents what the American theologian Daniel M. Bell Jr. calls a “theological revolution” Bell argues: “Every economic order reflects a particular understanding of how reality hangs together – what the nature and end of the material world is, how that world operates, and the place of humans within it, including the nature of their behaviour and interactions as well as their purpose and prospects – every economic order is implicitly making claims about God and humanity and how the two interact as humanity strives for the good life.”(Daniel M. Bell Jr., The Economy of Desire (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 90-91.)
The howls of protests against the inanity of Pepsi’s hijacking of significant social movements like #blacklivesmatter miss this fundamental point if they do not pursue their objection back to the source, through the sugared water, to capitalism. Similarly, Buffett’s face-on-a-can might be critiqued and mocked as a hollow totem which promises to bless the consumer by association, but that would miss the fundamental idolatry that lies behind all our economic activity when we think that material wealth will make us secure, or lead to our flourishing.
The theological revolution behind globalised, consumerist capitalism is the intention to re-direct desire (might we even dare to say “pervert desire”?) towards profit. Pepsi surely assembled so inflammatory an ad to generate controversy. Coca Cola knew what they were doing when they sought to directly relate their new product to one of the world’s richest people. This is the market’s disciplining effect on us. Advertisements shape us to be people who understand themselves around the things we own. As the theologian, and former marketing executive, Emily Hill puts it, such marketing campaigns train us to believe our “identity is constructed based on my consumption”.
If the advertising campaigns of Coke and Pepsi teach us that the world views identity in terms of ownership and accumulation, this Easter we may be able to reflect in a new way on how the avarice which capitalism cultivates stands opposed to the path of following Jesus. Christ did not grasp and did not seek to make himself great. Rather, he let go of what he could claim as his own for the sake of the world.The response made possible by Christianity to these marketing campaigns goes beyond cynicism or fury, to an authentically revolutionary commitment to building our identity on sacrifice, not gain.