The Sugar of Black CoolPepsi’s Botched Commercial Is Just One Problem in the Web of Food Justice

At first glance, Pepsi’s Kendall Jenner ad seems to be trying to draw on forward-thinking iconography. The ad features a “protest” made up of a virtual melting pot of dancing protesters of color, whose joyous revolution is all being captured by a Muslim woman photographer. When Kendall Jenner approaches an ambiguously brown cop, even her buoyant natural hair and her multicolored blue jeans hit home the message: Inclusivity and love are the main ingredients in the can of Pepsi she offers the cop. It’s no wonder that after taking a long swig, the cop breaks into an appealing grin and everybody cheers. The world is a better place.

Outside of the message of inclusivity and love, the ad also seemingly draws on imagery from Black Lives Matter protests and, in particular, the photo of Ieshia Evans standing in front of cops who are aggressively moving toward her to arrest her during a protest. Although Björn Charpentier, the director of photography for the ad, says he was actually playing on an older Vietnam Era anti-war photo, it would stand to reason that those who created and approved the ad felt like any Black Lives Matter references couldn’t hurt. After all, who is more forward-thinking than the young people of the BLM movement? And what’s wrong with wanting to be forward-thinking?

While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be forward-thinking, there is something wrong with believing you can buy the particular brand of “cool” that Pepsi is selling—that is: Black Cool. The appropriation and selling of Black Cool has long been the norm for corporations that understand the economic power of the young black community. But when it comes comes to selling food product, this appropriation has the consequence of creating lifetime consumers out of food-insecure communities of color that often have no other choice but to eat junk food.

According to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, beverage corporations spent $866 million dollars on advertisements targeting youth in 2013. Of those ads, Black youth viewed more than twice as many sugary drink ads on TV as white youth did, and Spanish-language TV experienced a 44% increase in ads for sugary drinks. Sugary drink corporations aren’t just using commercials to target youth, they are making sure their ads swamp the lives of young people. In addition to placing vending machines in schools, sugary drink corporations help young people pay for college, clean up school bus emissions, and buy new supplies and equipment.

Of course, in this era of heavy privatization and school defunding, all schools are being forced to look for other funding. But schools that have heavy populations of students of color are being hit particularly hard by budget cuts and are therefore most inclined to not just be receptive to but also desperately in need of the funding that sugary drink corporations provide. And while the USDA’s Smart Snacks in Schools program attempts to address corporate sponsorship in schools by limiting what drinks can be sold to young people (water, milk, or 100% fruit/vegetable juice), both Coke and Pepsi sell their own versions of bottled water. So, soda may not be directly available to youth in schools anymore, but the advertising on vending machines selling healthy drinks still is. Sugary drink corporations know to go where the kids are, and they know that young people are consuming up to 50% of their daily calories in schools.

But even more so, they go where the young people of color are. In Michael Moss’s compelling book, Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, he details how—after the company was bought by cigarette giant Philip Morris International—Kraft used lists of inner-city corner stores and gas stations curated by the cigarette company in order to sell tobacco products to sell its own sugary drinks to those same stores. As Moss recounts, the argument Kraft used to convince store owners to sell their drinks was the “low pricing to suit the low incomes of their customers.” By way of contrast, when sugary drink corporations market their drinks to the wealthier, whiter suburbs, they push healthy slogans such as “all natural” or “low sugar.” Both communities are being targeted by sugary drink corporations, but it is communities of color that are being pushed toward “cheap and plentiful,” such that overindulgence isn’t just implied but expected.

But it’s not just that sugary drink corporations are nefariously targeting youth of color, it’s that they also know that youth of color and, in particular, Black youth are the trendsetters, the ones that make things “cool.” As the Robert Wood Foundation notes, youth of color and black youth “tend to consume more media than general consumers do, use social networking to share opinions about products and brands, and are early adopters of new technology, often helping to set new trends.” Whether sugary drink corporations are selling or using Black Cool, they understand that they can’t sell their product as efficiently or successfully without Black youth.

Interestingly, the Jenner/Kardashian clan has the same reputation of trendsetting, often appropriating Black Cool themselves (see their tendency to appropriate Black hairstyles and clothes among many other things). It is also telling that Pepsi chose the young, still-emerging Kendall Jenner over her older, more popular sister, Kim, as the face of the hip and young protestors. Jenner has been linked to rapper A$AP Rocky, and she somehow manages to present as “ambiguously brown” like her sisters, even though she is the child of very unambiguously white parents. Jenner plays with a “Black-but-not-too-Black” identity, or Black enough for trendsetting Black youth to recognize her and have opinions on her, but not so Black as to scare away the “all natural”–loving moms of the wealthy white suburbs.

This appropriation of Black Cool by corporations and the adoption of “Black-but-not-too-Black” identities by white celebrities comes with consequences, and in the case of the Pepsi commercial (or any sugary drink corporate advertising), the consequences land most markedly on the bodies of black youth. The health problems associated with drinking sugary drinks are extensive, well documented, and include everything from diabetes to heart issues to tooth decay. Unsurprisingly, states with strong laws that limit in-school junk food sales have seen youth weight and health stabilize. And schools that have limited or completely eliminated the sale of sugary drinks and unhealthy snacks have not only seen their children’s health improve, but have also increased revenue.

Which means that if the primary response to the Pepsi commercial doesn’t center on youth of color, we’re all missing the point. Yes, decrying the ad is important, but creating alternatives for youth around food and media is essential. Luckily, young people of color are creating ways to not only challenge the food system, but also build something new as well. Take, for example, “Grow Food,” the awesome healthy food ad by the young people of the Northern Minneapolis organization Appetite for Change. While the ad exists as a critique of the way junk food corporations target communities of color, it also helps to create and mobilize a vibrant, compelling culture around food that acts as a legitimate alternative to the appropriative and dangerous culture that Pepsi is selling. As usual, young Black people are the thoughtful producers of what’s cool.

The Kendall Jenner/Pepsi ad is not the first and won’t be the last time that corporations use Black Cool to sell sugary drinks (and junk food) to kids of color. As the outrage over the Pepsi ad is starting to wan, it’s important to continue to interrogate the more benign ads that don’t invoke the same level of outrage as the Pepsi ad. Our food system is not safe for our children or us. It really is time to, as Pepsi would say, “change the game.”

by Victoria Goff
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Victoria Goff is a writer in the Rust Belt. She breaths fire and slays injustice in her spare time. You can follower her on Twitter @RustbeltRebel.

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