The advertising industry deeply values its role as a societal game-changer and refuses to accept even a token pinch of salt. On the formidable matter of gender empowerment, two recent expositions by Pepsi and Starbucks are worthy of minor debate.
Pepsi, quite like arch-rival Coke, adheres to a communication formula as sincerely as the product formulation. It invests patented rigour in selecting current and imminent youth icons, then systematically imbibing them with inspirational imagery. Which, when aggregated over decades, is a quaint summation of time-tested cliches, as old as Virginia Slims but never remotely as iconic. The Samantha Ruth Prabhu version of 2023 ‘Rise Up Baby’ effortlessly falls in this cadre of mindless continuity, oblivious to the obvious change.
But truthfully, this advertising is of such undeniable wallpaper value that nobody is actually bothered, except the client and research agencies commissioned to show powerpoint progress. Perhaps, a few young people are suitably motivated to go beyond the brief, although in this era, there are far more compelling sources of benchmarking than cola storytelling. That too, from a product which is contradictory to much of new age youth values, loaded with sugary instigations, however valid the ‘zero’ claims may be.
Now, contrast this with Starbucks and its recent Arpita advertisement that is creating much furore on social media. A story about the reunion of Arpit, now Arpita after gender change, with ‘her’ parents, who finally seem to accept the right to choose. Most intelligently, it is rooted in the Starbucks protocol of writing customer names on coffee cups, a lovable device to convey the affirmation of acceptance. This is ‘cause’ advertising at its finest - rooted in brand, entrenched to experience and a narrative that cleverly weaves the context without being trivial or overbearing.
But then, this piece finds many detractors and clearly fellows who are principally opposed to the concept of gender modification. As per current practices, there are many who are double keen on boycotting the brand, as punishment for associating with such prejudiced sensitivity. Whatever the outcome, and I am sure that the crisis will be shortly forgotten, the brand deserves the finest plaudits for taking a genuine front food stand, topical and courageous.
Pepsi, as an advertising franchise, is built on 1960s values of larger-than-reality advertising where a saccharine-clad aura overwhelmed any sincerity to emulate reality. Starbucks, although of considerable vintage, is constructed on the values of the Third Place, the unification of work and play in innovative tandem. The latter owes its growth to human ambitions, rooted yet winged, while the former believes wondrously, quite like cinema, in the power of unfettered fantasy, transmitted as aspiration.
As a customer and communicator, I do believe that Pepsi is operating in Cash Cow mode, doing its finest to cash in on a throbbing legacy as long as the party lasts. Latest data points and an irreversible consumer trend suggests deeply that it will end shortly, not at the hands of Coke but by decree of sensible youngsters, saying no to all troublemakers.
Perhaps young ladies should have their say on this campaign as it is surely a slur on native intelligence to need a cola-wallah to be the harbinger of development, earned through education and commitment. Boyfriends wooing girlfriends or jumping off cliffs are fine and all in good humour but venturing into ambition territory may be genuinely faulty and disrespectful.
The future is clearly the frothy Starbucks path, not the fizzy Pepsi way, as surrogates of societal development. Arpita, by derived logic, is clearly the winner and Samantha must learn her deserving lessons.