crisis management, dyjaho, online, digital marketing, PR

What do Pepsi and United Airlines have in common?

The common denominator among the two is that they failed spectacularly in crisis management online in 2017. Pepsi’s poorly thought-through ad campaign featuring Kendall Jenner and United Airlines’ terrible treatment of a paying passenger seem easy to condemn in hindsight, but it’s important to address how a business can mismanage a campaign or incident to the point of creating an online firestorm.


April 4th, 2017 was a historic day for the internet – as this date marks the day that Twitter users took down Pepsi and Kendall Jenner for an offensively transparent ad campaign. The ad in question features Jenner, posing for a photoshoot, quickly shifting gears to social-justice activist, by joining a racially diverse peace protest and ultimately saving the day by handing a police officer a can of Pepsi. Twitter users quickly drew comparisons between the Pepsi campaign and Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March, among other protests that took place in 2017.

The backlash against the ad was strong, with Twitter users creating memes satirizing the absurdity of the Pepsi protest, journalists writing think pieces, and PR and crisis management professionals offering their two-cents. By April 6th, the campaign had gone completely south, with Pepsi pulling the ad and issuing a formal apology to those who they caused offense as well as to the face of the campaign, Kendall Jenner.

Where did it all go wrong?

When reflecting on the situation, it is easy to criticize the campaign, Pepsi, and Jenner for woeful mismanagement. However, we can break it down to its bare bones and isolate the reasons why this campaign went so wrong:

  • Pepsi trivialized important social issues

Politics, social issues, and other emotive topics should be thoroughly researched, handled with care and ultimately convey an understanding of the topic as a whole. While a really great idea for an advertising campaign, a video or smaller content might seem exciting and captivating at first, it’s important to consider whether your audience will appreciate using a controversial issue to sell your product. Always ask the following questions: Is this capitalizing on an emotive, meaningful topic? Is this approaching that topic in an offensive way? What sort of conversation do I want this ad/content/video/etc to produce? What sort of conversation will this ad/content/video/etc likely produce?

  • They didn’t listen to their audience

Pepsi referred to their ad in a statement to BuzzFeed News as an ad that “…reflects people from different walks of life coming together in a spirit of harmony”. We can agree that this is an important message in a vague sense, however, it emphasizes no real meaning, understanding or coherent message apart from, ‘drink Pepsi – end protests’. Considering the topical nature of the ad campaign, Pepsi showed a lack of research of recent protests and social issues in 2017. Had Pepsi researched more thoroughly, they could have addressed social issues in a more meaningful way, like Heineken, with their ‘Worlds Apart’ campaign. In short, they didn’t listen to their audience about the issues that matter most and why they matter.

  • Jenner was a poor choice

Jenner, an extension of the Kardashian clan, has little relevance to the world of politics, social justice or protests. Although she is a famous figure, she’s associated with fashion, glamour and reality television. Unfortunately, most people made this connection and focused their backlash on Jenner. Had Pepsi chosen a politically active celebrity, their ad campaign may have had more credibility.

  • They seemed disconnected & out of touch

Each of these reasons brings us to this conclusion – Pepsi showed themselves as disconnected and out of touch with social issues of importance to large portions of the population. It begs the question, how many levels of authorization did this idea pass through? What we can learn from this final reason is that it is always important to source diverse opinions on your ad campaign. A diversity of opinions will allow you to stay several steps ahead of potential backlash your campaign may encounter.

What did they do right?

Although the reaction to the ad campaign was mostly negative, Pepsi ultimately addressed the situation in a timely manner, whereby they took full ownership and responsibility for the campaign and issued a genuine apology. While the negative discussion and backlash surrounding the campaign reached crisis level, what we can take away from this case is the necessity for a timely, genuine and authentic response, which can mitigate the negative press, dull the discussion, and finally reduce the level of information produced surrounding the controversy.

United Airlines

Just as the dust began to settle on the Pepsi controversy, United Airlines did one better and became the centre of a controversy that obtained global coverage for the mistreatment of a paying passenger on one of their flights. On the 9th of April 2017, video footage was captured of David Dao being violently removed from a United Airlines flight bound for Louisville, Kentucky, by aviation police officials at O’Hare international airport, Chicago.  

In the video, guards can be seen dragging Dao down the aisle of the plane. United Airlines issued a statement that the flight was overbooked and no passengers volunteered to give up their seats. In turn, United Airlines representatives made the decision to remove four passengers at random, and that one man, Dao, refused to leave his seat.

The video footage went viral worldwide, placing United Airlines under immense scrutiny. Initially, United blamed Dao for the situation, as he was “disruptive and belligerent”. Predictably, this initial response was received poorly by both media and the general population. No less than a day later, however, their reputation had already suffered a high degree of damage. The incident had spread across social media, other companies used it as an opportunity for clever marketing, and many media agencies reported the incident.

Where did it all go wrong?

With United, it all went wrong the moment they implemented their disastrous policy by force. A solid rule of maintaining a great company reputation is by delivering fantastic customer service – something which United failed to do.

To further complicate the situation, United’s initial response was dismissive, out-of-touch and failed to recognize the severity of the incident. Although they eventually replied with a more sincere apology, people had already made up their minds about United Airlines.

What can learn from these cases?

We can learn some very useful tips from these cases:

  • Always do your research! Conduct research on your target demographics and obtain diverse opinions about the topic at hand.
  • Approach sensitive topics with understanding and empathy. Don’t make a mishap like Pepsi – your campaign idea should be in touch with reality.
  • In the case of a crisis, assess the situation and publish a timely, genuine response. – We can take this point away from both Pepsi and United Airlines. Delaying your response to the situation can only complicate the situation and increase your problems. Take responsibility and don’t dismiss what your audience says!