An advertisement for Pepsi (featuring the sub-Kardashian Kendall Jenner) recently got a lot of buzz and for all the wrong reasons. It’s message was simple – join the conversation. The methodology was… ignorant. That’s if we’re being merciful. Various corners of the internet sparked a flame at Pepsi’s appropriation of protest imagery to sell flavored high fructose corn syrup. Pepsi has since pulled the ad. “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize,” Pepsi released in a statement. “We did not intend to make light of any serious issue.” Actually, Pepsi, your brand absolutely intended to make light of a serious issue. Let’s get dirty and apply ‘dramaturgy,’ or the theory and practice of dramatic composition, to this ad.
In 1929, a Jewish Soviet named Sergei Eisenstein penned an essay titled The Dramaturgy of Film Form (The Dialectical Approach to Film Form). Eisenstein was a film director and theorist who is considered by many filmic scholars to be the father of montage. In his own words, Eisenstein writes “the old filmmakers, including the theoretically quite outmodeled Lev Kuleshov, regarded montage as a means of producing something by describing it, adding individual shots to one another like building blocks.” Gotta love the drag on Kuleshov. Let’s get a Soviet propagandist drama in the works, Netflix. Eisenstein called the Kuleshov understanding (a format called the ‘epic’ principle) of montage a “fundamentally false notion [because] it would mean defining an object exclusively in terms of its external course.” Eisenstein suggested instead that montage is not a format created by a logical succession of shots, but rather “an idea that derives from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another (a format called the ‘dramatic’ principle.” Following? The ‘epic’ principal operates linearly. The Pepsi advert opens with the pop of a soda can, immediately followed by a montage which employs the ‘epic’ principal.
We’re introduced to our hero of this story, a sweaty Asian stereotype so juiced up on Pepsi Max that he done broke his damn cello. In figure 1a, his effort and focus is on direct display. In figure 1b, his intensity is demonstrated. The subject and dimension do not change from one shot to the next – a linear progression. Speaking for myself, soda doesn’t make me a better performer of anything. It does make my kneecaps vibrate, so maybe put that in an ad. Consultant fees will apply.
The entire Pepsi advertisement is composed with Eisenstein’s ‘dramatic’ principle of montage. Characters and ideas which are meaningless by themselves are brought together to form a methodological statement.
A woman creates art in figure 2a while drinking a Pepsi. A march for Pepsi-colored peace occurs in 2b. Kendall Jenner is amazed by something Pepsi-related in 2c. A stony-faced law enforcement officer prepares to pepper-spray some college kids in figure 2d. Eisenstein would say that each shot exists as a separate dimension, and when combined, they “give rise to a completely new higher dimension.” This is what Pepsi intended to do.
Eisenstein regards this sort of progression to be in the dialectical, which means that conflict is the foundation of the way the ad should be considered and the way the ad was edited. Eisenstein says that conflict is a staple to every work of art. He goes on further to say “Conflicts […] are waiting only for a single intensifying impulse to break up into antagonistic pairs of fragments. Close ups and long shots. Fragments traveling graphically in different directions. Fragments resolved in columns and fragments resolved in planes. Fragments of darkness and light, etc.” So in exploring the Pepsi ads with the idea of conflict being the focus, it is somewhat easy to identify which shots accomplish conflict. Being that the entire scene is about the union of a troubled community, Pepsi builds this pleasantry with a sense of conflicts. Our hero, the struggling cellist, must confront his uselessness by being a part of something bigger. The hijabed woman must begin her artistic endeavor anew after failing her previous effort. Kendall Jenner, in the middle of a superficial fashion shoot, is inspired by our hero (the perspiring cellist) to do more with her existence in that moment. The rugged policeman braces for pending doom with his squad. In this instance, it would be the conflict of association in that the audience should expect to see the inspiring march come to a point of violence. Instead, the audience sees that the social value of the individual humans in this advert is inferior to the social value of a can of Pepsi – as Pepsi fully intended.
Eisenstein sees montage as not just an assembly of conflicting elements, but a collision of the ‘organic’ and the ‘rational.’ This collision is displayed with the frustrated cellist, the illustrator, the dancers, and the march can all filling the role of the ‘organic.’ Kendall Jenner and her magic Pepsi can filling the role of the ‘rational.’ Eisenstein describes this as being between “organic inertia and purposeful initiative.”1 In this instance, we have the organic as the thesis, and the rational as the antithesis. When these elements are combined, they create a synthesis of the artistic and of the scientific, the exact sort of collision Eisenstein had described as being elemental to the ‘dramatic’ principle of montage. Eisenstein clarifies that once this synthesis is achieved, a film can be considered intellectual, free from general limitations, and allow for “direct forms for thoughts, systems and concepts without any transitions or paraphrase.” This begs the question – why would Pepsi choose to purposefully occupy the role of the ‘rational’ with Kendall Jenner acting as their life model decoy?
It’s simple. The advertisement is a statement. The ‘organic’ must be qualified by the ‘rational.’ Think of the imagery on display. No one filling the role of the ‘organic’ is doing enough. The cellist slices a catgut string with his horsehair bow, exasperated. The illustrator is unsatisfied with her work. The dancers have no audience. Their existence is unjustified. The march itself is just a background to Kendall Jenner’s glamour shoot until our hero, sweaty cellist, invites her to validate the ‘organic’ with a nod. Jenner joins the conversation – the ‘organic’ is justified by the ‘rational.’ Kendall Jenner, with her can of Pepsi, bring meaning to this mess of organic existence. There is no ultimate conflict, just a synthesis, established by a can of Pepsi.
There it is. The reason why this ad generated so much furor is because Pepsi is making the active claim that their version of flavored high-fructose corn syrup that someone as famous as Kendall Jenner enjoys has more ‘rationality’ than the ‘organic’ pursuits of art or social justice. Nothing matters, only Pepsi. Are you struggling with your art? Drink a Pepsi. Are you struggling with your use to the world? It’s okay, Pepsi is here. Even Kendall Jenner wants in on the amazing goodness that is Pepsi. Oh, and don’t worry about police violence – a can of Pepsi has got your back.
Recap – Conflict is the foundation of dramatic composition and therefore the foundation of the art of film itself. Conflict can be achieved through the film’s social mission, nature, or its methodology. Montage can be used to create any of these principles, and montage itself is a conflict of images. Montage is created through collision of shots, and shots are the most basic element of film. Pepsi solves all conflicts -external and internal- and our experiences as humans don’t matter at all without a Pepsi. Thank you, Pepsi. We’ve found a leader in you.
Eisenstein, Sergei. Writings, 1922-1934: Sergei Eisenstein Selected Works, Volume 1. Trans. Richard Taylor. London: British Film Institute, 1988. Print.
- “The Dramaturgy of Film Form (The Dialectical Approach to Film Form)” pg. 161-180
- “Za Kadrom (Beyond the Shot)” pg. 138-150
The deleted Pepsi ad is linked here.