Pepsi Behaving Badly

A look at some of Pepsi's most controversial marketing campaigns.

"'Skinny' can, fat controversy."

It's a headline that should be well familiar to people by now — the reference, of course, is to Diet Pepsi's new "taller, sassier" can design. (Released to coincide with New York Fashion Week, no less). Did you just roll your eyes? Clench your fist? Look for the nearest social media outlet to voice your reaction? Yeah, you're not alone.

Public opinion has come fast, furious, and uncensored. "Talk about reinforcing negative stereotypes of women! It's as offensive to women as Virginia Slims!" "Whatever, if you're so offended, just don't buy it!" "How is this innovative? It looks like a Red Bull can!" "What a bunch of bologna — diet soda, like any kind of soda, isn't good for you!" "It's a can of soda, people — relax."

Intentional or not, the campaign is a good old-fashioned lesson in How to Rile People Up 101. And as it turns out, this isn't the company's first dalliance with the subject. From print ads featuring "suicidal calories" to an allegedly racist Super Bowl commercial, here is a look at five of Pepsi Co's most controversial marketing campaigns.


Pepsi Max Suicidal Calorie Campaign

How do you turn a one-calorie soda into a controversial, hot-button topic? Why, introduce the theme of suicide into its marketing campaign, of course! In December of 2008, one-off Pepsi Max print ads intended for an avante-garde German magazine surfaced online. The images gruesomely depicted cartoon calories killing themselves in a number of different ways (hanging, gunshot, poison), apparently too "lonely" to go on living. People were offended to say the least, and the company had to do some serious damage control.


Obama Campaign Copycat Logo

People often have strong reactions to changes in the look of a company's logo — especially when that company is a generations-old soda superstar. But when Pepsi revealed a more modern, revamped look for its logo in 2009, the strong reaction that many had was that of déja vu. The streamlined design, coupled with new slogans like "Yes You Can" and "Choose Change," were criticized for copying the look and message of President Obama's successful election campaign.


"Love Hurts" Pepsi Max Super Bowl Ad

Of course, companies that shell out the big bucks to advertise on Super Bowl Sunday want consumers to talk about their ad long after the big game ends. Unfortunately for Pepsi, the talk about their new Pepsi Max ad wasn't good. Aired this year during Super Bowl XLV, the spot showed an African-American woman hitting a white female jogger in the head with a can of Pepsi Max after she catches her boyfriend checking her out. Not surprisingly, it led to several heated debates about unfavorable racial stereotyping.


Ludacris Spokesperson Debacle

For a brief period in August of 2002, rapper Ludacris was able to call himself as a Pepsi spokesperson — emphasis on the word "brief." His gig was cut short after Fox's Bill O'Reilly instigated a boycott of the rapper's ad for the soda company, blasting the musician for being "immoral." Pepsi caved and pulled the spots, but then took more heat after hiring shock-rock family, the Osbournes, as the follow-up spokespeople.


"Amp Up Before You Score" iPhone App

In October of 2009, Pepsi felt some serious public backlash for an iPhone application it developed to promote its Amp energy drink. Called "Amp Up Before You Score," the app played the role of wingman — providing tips and tricks for picking up 24 different stereotypes of women, from the "treehugger" to the "sorority girl." Stereotyping women — a clutch move in the pot stirrer's handbook. Even the company's apology via Twitter ended up adding fuel to the fire over the perceivably sexist app.