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Pulled Pepsi ad taps in to the currency for social justice

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Pepsi is a visionary. It successfully established and capitalized on a new market. The multimillion dollar company, trading on the New York Stock Exchange at about 111 dollars a piece, released, a few days ago, an advertisement where Pepsi gets consumed in multicultural fashion, by an Asian violinist, a Muslim artist, African Americans dancers and a white female model, across the scene(s) of an abstract protest, and offered in cheering applauses to police officers. The ad received much backlash from the online community and several mainstream media outlets, forcing the company to ultimately withdraw the commercial. Allegations were about the ad co-opting protest imagery for profit, trivializing resistance and social justice causes, and particularly appropriating visual content from the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, as in mimicking the posture of a black woman who formerly confronted a riot police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in July.

Despite apparent claims of appropriation, the kernel of analysis rests in deeper rationalities.

First of all, Pepsi managed to displace the symbolism of protests and to exploit a non-economic form of (figurative) capital. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that various forms of capital operate within different societal fields. Economic capital bonds with material wealth, cultural capital with cultural knowledge, since a work of art can only be understood by those familiar with the rules positioning the works within the artistic field(s), symbolic capital is a matter of prestige, and so on and so forth.

Possessing one form of capital is not indicative of the accumulation of all others. However, what Bourdieu started to write about, particularly at the end of his life, was that economic capital ends up determining more and more the distribution of all other forms of capital, in analytical terms, that cultural and symbolic production are constituted as determinable processes, and directly resulting from an economically bound distributive logic. In other words, the chameleonic logic of economic capital is what sets the tone for how the other fields distribute their forms of capital, structuring distributive principles and universalizing the economic rule.

The values of resistance and social justice, formerly endowed with symbolic capital (by their own virtue of aiming to create a better, more equal world and enhanced re-distribution of state- welfare schemes, such as health care, education, etc.) have become rhetorical artefacts that sell.

Pepsi in fact has found a new market. Within an era where protest and social mobilization have no political impact, in terms of structurally changing society nor in levelling unjust policies, there is a currency for social justice discourses just as there is for any other cultural products.

In looking beyond large (a)political amalgamations of people who just sporadically join a movement (i.e. the Wome's March on Washington), at the core of social unrests, stands, in general, the image of the activist. The figure of the activist oftentimes represents the left side of the political spectrum, ideologically positioned as anti-bourgeois, and against the corporate status quo. The activist enacts what Bourdieu called the logic of the economic world reversed. Willingly or not, the activist benefits from a certain accumulation of symbolic capital (within a progressive community) from simply being an activist and subsequently opposing the market. It is from this figurative oppositional positioning that such an image gains prestige.

The distinctive value of (a particular leftist) activist image is extracted from the negative relation it has with the economics, the market and the logic of material accumulation. However, capitalism is distorted to such an extent that is nowadays able to capitalize even on non-economical markets. What is both interesting and disturbing is that Pepsi managed to capitalize exactly on this distinctive value. Even if the commercial was ultimately retracted, it paved the way for the creation of a new market, showing that to universalize at the macro level (i.e. new markets, new geographical zones of operation), as Vivek Chibber would say, capital just needs a new strategy of economic reproduction.

Secondly, the Pepsi ad illustratively shows that multiculturalism and diversity sell. No wonder Facebook aims to hire women, African Americans and Latino workers, that University boards aim to attract racialized students, or that diversity training is almost mandatory within many large public institutions or corporations. After all, a mono-value system would not be enough for capitalism to extend its wings. It needs diversity to cash in on high tuition fees and to maintain debt-consuming societies. And if we manage to co-opt diversity within our reproductive economic patterns, we for sure must be doing the right thing. It is not just about diversity being contained within the institutional realm as a matter of performativity (i.e. as in only changing the perception of destabilizing privilege), as Sara Ahmed showed, but also about the fact that multicultural differences and particularities are incorporated as key ingredients in facilitating capital’s distribution.

After all the higher the separation of groups and communities on ethnic and racial bases the lesser the prospect that people will unite to overthrown the capitalist system. It is better we self-identify as Asian violinists, Muslim artists or African American dancers. We can then bond in consuming Pepsi together. 

Image: Flickr/Chrisinphilly

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