Companies like Pepsi make billions of dollars by fostering good, friendly feelings—not controversy. They spend enormous sums making certain that the message they intend to send is, indeed, the message that they send. They understand how hard it is to get the point, so they make it really simple by repeating their message.
Pepsi usually doesn’t get it wrong.
And this time, they didn’t get it wrong either.
It’s people who bend so far backward to be politically correct and globally sensitive that they end up seeing the world backwards that got it wrong. People like the daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
There is nothing to misunderstand in the recently released and quickly pulled Pepsi commercial. It is a visually and musically compelling tribute to unity.
But when someone as influential as the daughter of one of America’s greatest icons took to Twitter to blast the ad, Pepsi had no chance to explain and defend itself. The company had no choice but to pull the ad and apologize for a mistake they didn’t make.
As soon as I saw the first seconds of the ad, I understood that the creators were modeling it on the famous Coke ad released in 1971. The Coke commercial was one of the best commercials ever made, certainly rivaling modern day Super Bowl ads in creativity and content. At its release, it was the most expensive commercial created. It cost $250,000.
The Coke ad was entitled “Hilltop Song,” but everyone who knew it—which was pretty much everyone who owned a television set—called it “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” or, more simply, “Buy the World a Coke.”
The “Hilltop Song” was later recorded by the group called The New Seekers. They re-recorded the song, removing the references to Coke and The Real Thing. In 1971, the new version hit No. 1 on U.K. music charts and No. 7 on Billboard charts in the U.S.
Coke’s commercial presented a mosaic of people from all over the world standing on a hilltop in Italy. When the commercial was re-released a few years later as a Christmas ad, the chorus was sitting and swaying, and each person held a candle. As the camera pulled back, the viewer saw that the people created the image of a Christmas tree.
The updated Pepsi version presented an American street protest with people from around the world coming together in classic 2017 fashion.
The lyrics of the Coke song were profound:
“I’d like to build the world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company
I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace through out the land
(That’s the song I hear)
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony”
Using music for a cause is not unusual. The ’60s were filled with that theme—just think of Dylan and Peter Paul and Mary.
In 1985, Harry Belafonte, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones and Kenny Rogers joined together with Michael Jackson to put together a commercial for United Support of Artists for Africa, better known as USA For Africa. The resulting song, “We Are the World,” became one of the highest selling singles of all time.
When you look at the Pepsi ad next to the Coke ad and the “We are the World” ad, the parallels in messaging, wording, and intent are obvious. One is from the ’70s, one is from the ’80s and one is from 2017, but they are celebrate unity.
There is nothing wrong with the Pepsi ad. The error was in misinterpreting the message.
We all hope for peace and yearn for unity. To say that the first step in the process is eating and drinking together—in this case drinking Pepsi, in the 70s drinking Coke—is perhaps simplistic but certainly not vile or divisive.
The derivation of the word “companion” comes from the Latin: Com means together and pan is bread. A companion is someone with whom you break bread with maybe even have a drink with. Then, with your companions, you can start to solve the problems of the world.
It’s worth the effort because:
“We are the world we, are the children,
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me”
Yes, Pepsi wants to sell more carbonated drinks and bottled water, but they are doing so with a campaign that makes people feel good.
Pepsi is neither insulting the civil rights movement nor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It’s myopic not to get that message.
Micah Halpern is a political and foreign affairs commentator, author the “The Micah Report,” online and host of the weekly TV show “Thinking Out Loud w Micah Halpern.” follow him on twitter: @MicahHalpern