Is Pepsi Crazy… Like a Fox?

Less than 6 weeks ago, Pepsi was grabbing attention in the blogosphere with leaks of their new branding. The company followed up by sending the new cans to 25 of the blogging elite and soliciting feedback on Friendfeed. Reaction to both the logo and the campaign was somewhat mixed, but Pepsi deserves credit for adopting a direct and fresh style to generate buzz beyond the tired milieu of the insider blog or vanilla social network presence.
The company’s in the spotlight once again after publishing ads for Pepsi Max in a German magazine featuring a black-humor take on the suicide of a personified calorie.† The (suspiciously crisp) images of the ads have been inciting a fiery backlash centered around the fact that most people don’t find suicide all that funny (surprise!). Recall GM’s 2007 Superbowl spot, which showed an assembly robot throwing itself off a bridge, was withdrawn amid public criticism.† Pepsi’s already pulled the ad but the question remains: what the devil are they up to?
Pepsi is a Fortune 100 company with a colossal marketing engine. Having bought two spots in last year’s Superbowl, they surely were aware of GM’s snafu. For me to believe that their publishing a highly controversial advertisement in a single magazine in D¸sseldorf is some kind of fluke requires excessive suspension of disbelief. Yet, by publishing on such a small scale and then quickly retracting, Pepsi has achieved the corporate equivalent of plausible deniability.
Normally this type of ‘gaffe’ is a challenge to a brand’s reputation. I think there are still a few dents in the Kevlar over at Motrin marketing, and they were making light of baby slings, not suicide. But what’s left to criticize PepsiÆ for? The ads have been withdrawn, there’s no real physical evidence to speak of, and the ads’ short reach diminishes perceived accountability. I’ve noticed that while many commenters lambaste the subject matter, there is surprisingly little bile toward Pepsi for choosing to employ it.
So Pepsi has managed once again to initiate massive word of mouth interest in their brand at nearly zero cost.† They’re clearly gained a tolerance for risk and I can’t wait to see what’s next in Pepsi’s special ops marketing campaign. I just wonder in their quest to stir up buzz they’ll end up poking the beehive just a little too hard.

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