Casting Ouch

Sometimes the message and a superstar messenger just don’t fit.


Unless you have been living under a rock, you would have seen the controversial and now pulled Pepsi commercial featuring model Kendall Jenner. When the commercial began doing the rounds in early spring this year, it racked up 1.6 million YouTube views within its first 48 hours. Such a feat would normally reflect massive popularity, only this time, to Pepsi’s dismay, there was more chagrin than they could imagine. Among the precious few times on social media, people united in opinion on the issue and everyone seemed to agree that Pepsi trivialized the importance of protests for commercial gains.

Protests, debates and marches are a salient feature of a democratic world. From Black Lives Matter to the Women’s March, protests are among the few platforms for activists to stake claim to a world of hope and compassion. For a generation of Americans, a march marks an inclusiveness they so dearly crave.

So, when a supermodel with a mega watt smile was shown joining protest and handing over a Pepsi to a police officer, people were left dazed whether they should celebrate that Jenner has joined their cause or if a cola had the power to absolve world crisis.

Pepsi not only goofed up with the ad concept, it was dumb to rope in Kendall Jenner as its ambassador.

While enough has been said about Pepsi’s insensitivity and tone-deafness, there is another big problem with the commercial — that of choosing a blatantly wrong ambassador. Kendall Jenner, with all due credit to her supermodel status, is among the least politically active celebrity around. We have almost never heard Jenner take a stand on issues that matter. When did the celebrity with a massive 21.5 million followers on Twitter last voice concerns over a political, social or a societal problem? Even in the midst of the raging controversy, Jenner responded not by apologizing or commenting, but by covering up her face during public outings and when chased by paparazzi. As of mid April her latest tweet was about a beauty kit that her followers had a chance to win!

So Pepsi not only goofed up with the ad concept, it was dumb to rope in Jenner. Perhaps a celebrity more attuned to social causes and concerns might have seen the problem in the commercial, or at least added some credibility.

Pepsi may have been smitten by the enormous influence the model has with the young generation — an audience that all cola companies have been targeting for their sugar laden, zany little cans. Average (read not unprivileged) young Americans today are more informed and vociferous about their rights and how to demand them, than most living-in-a-bubble celebs.

In an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Kendall Jenner was once shown toying with the idea of speaking out against gun violence in America. However, a quick chat session with half-brother Rob warning her of a possible backlash prompted her to chicken out from taking up the issue. It was only after persuasion by her older sisters, who invited her to attend victims of gun violence meet-up, where too Jenner arrived fashionably late, that the model finally agreed to lend her voice. The point is that Jenner comes from an apprehension to commit to concerns mindset. And perhaps that’s also what enraged people who saw no connection between an important cause and the chosen celebrity.

But if it’s any solace for Pepsi is is not alone. Brands and directors all across the world have sometimes made errors in casting. While Pepsi got both its message and messenger wrong, often the problem is a wrong messenger for a great message.

Late last year, Indians woke up to an unbelievably gut-busting full page advertisement featuring Hollywood star Pierce Brosnan endorsing Pan Bahar, a brand of pan masala. People had a field day on social media trying to fathom how the James Bond star fit the theme of a pan masala chewing dude or why the company had to look so far West to get a Hollywood star to endorse its product when most of its clientele were unlikely to watch a Hollywood movie.

Social media had a field day trying to fathom how the James Bond star Pierce Brosnan fit the image of a pan masala chewing dude.

The mismatch was as wide as Grand Canyon and the tomfoolery resulted in both the brand and the star issuing rival statements. While the star said he was ill informed about the harmful product and thought he was doing an advertisement for a tooth whitener, the company countered that Brosnan knew about the product and that it does not contain any tobacco.

Sometimes in a bid to rope in a famous face, brands forget that the celeb may be entirely antithetical to its image. Pushing the boundary too hard can lead to comical rather than convincing situations. Like, who would believe that Bollywood superstar ShahRukh Khan uses Lux soap while bathing in a bathtub strewn with rose petals! If Cleopatra was the inspiration behind the idea, then Khan with none of his quick wit or talent is still a poor substitute.

According to casting agents, before a role a star or a model is selected there is intense discussion on the perfect pick for the role. Likewise, a star’s agents and managers also evaluate if the offered part fits the actor’s image.

Prahlad Kakkar, one of the leading ad film makers in India, who’s behind the very popular Pepsi ad aired in India featuring Sachin Tendulkar with some kids, says, “While there is no denying that some commercials have been downright awful, but I believe in India we have made some exceptionally great commercials too.”

Kakkar says, “What counts is the story an advertisement tells. Because after watching, it’s the story if it is powerful, that stays with you.”

Not just the ad world, but Hollywood too has sometimes blundered with wrong casting, lending otherwise brilliant ideas for lampooning by critics. A 1956 classic Hollywood movie The Conqueror is a legendary example of a great role for a wrong person. John Wayne, who was at the height of his popularity, bagged the role of Mongol emperor Genghis Khan. Wayne had developed an enviable reputation in Hollywood playing cowboy roles. Perhaps he wanted to push the envelope and the producer Howard Hughes was mesmerized by his star power. The result — an unconvincing, almost comical portrayal of a cowboy pretending to be a Middle Eastern warlord. The movie was badly panned and reserved its spot on the

“100 Most Enjoyable Bad Movies Ever Made” in The Official Razzie Movie Guide. Similarly when Russell Crowe played Noah, no body quite believed an accented New Zealander as the great Noah of the Ark.

Bollywood superstars desperate to break into Hollywood have misfired too. Aishwarya Rai, the first Indian actor to get mainstream Hollywood notice, fizzled in Pink Panther.

Ultimately, the message and the messenger got to fit.

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