Why Malaysians should not be laughing at Kendall Jenner's Pepsi commercial

Why Malaysians should not be laughing at Kendall Jenner's Pepsi commercial
ITS an astonishingly nave, comfortably elitist, fairytale of a commercial starring Kendall Jenner. -Screengrab from YouTube video by Kendall and Kylie
IT’S an astonishingly naive, comfortably elitist, fairytale of a commercial starring Kendall Jenner.

If you haven’t seen the Pepsi “short film” yet, be prepared for an enlightening few minutes — enlightening in the realization that even professionals can miss the mark, drastically.

In the two-minute-39-second ad, Jenner abandons a photoshoot to join a protest whose objective is to “join the conversation.”

Source: YouTube Kendall and Kylie

Packed with hipsters and more hipsters, Jenner is immediately promoted as the movement’s leader in their confrontation with the police.

With wit and pure genius, Jenner hands a can of Pepsi to one of the police officers— who in plain clothes might even look like Daniel Pantaleo. The cop drinks the Pepsi and everyone erupts in cheers.

The moral of the story? Now we have Pepsi to solve all our problems. Pepsi has since taken down the ad which many accused of trivializing the black lives matter marches happening all across the US.

Of course it’s trivializing. Imagine handing a can of Pepsi to a block of (white) police officers in real life, pushed on edge and ready to smoke your face with tear gas.

In an official statement by Pepsi, they claim to have tried “to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize.”


But before we Malaysians start pointing and laughing at Pepsi for their lack-of- touch with reality, it’s important we first look at the type of commercials that come out of our own country.
Ads reveal a lot about the society you live in. Specifically, advertisers maneuver the actors and actresses in their commercials to highlight common values that are regarded as appealing and acceptable in the society they sell to — values that they believe, through association, will lead you to agreeing with their product ideal.

Like with Jenner in the Pepsi ad, she is an attractive, slim, white and laid back young woman.

Top of the pecking order. Every young girl would want to be her. Every detail about Jenner are features that Pepsi (albeit misread) decided the society they were selling to would find appealing.

So what values get promoted in Malaysian ads? What is the ideal beauty that advertisers want associated with their product here in Malaysia?

Undeniably, for girls, beauty is narrowed down to having light skin, big eyes, a tall thin nose, and straight hair. A quick flip through the channels in between your favorite programs exhibit this.

Take for example an ad by Dherbs Fantasy Skin Care. The ad features a girl with darkish, imperfect facial skin who gets rejected at school by a guy she admirers.

After applying the skin care product, the girl transforms into a glowing, flawless, plainly ‘white’ star of the class. Suddenly all the guys fall for her. The guy she is keen on asks for her name and the scene melodically ends with a happy ending.

Malaysians know all too well that catchy phrase, “Qu Putih, Qu Putih, barulah putih.” And while Dr Vida’s successes should not be underestimated, we should really be attentive to the underlying message that these ads project. Who decided white was the color to be?

What we have in Malaysia is an epidemic collective crisis of confidence where young girls, at a very early age, are sold the idea that their bodies, looks and beauty are the only factor that defines their success.

More than ever before, young women live in an environment where their bodies are objectified and prioritized over the intellect they have to contribute back to society.

We may argue that advertisements don’t change the way we think, but ads, as ad-practitioner-turned-academic Robert Heath’s new book, "Seducing The Subconscious" outlines, ads target our subconscious.

They target us when we are laziest to think rationally, when our minds shut off but the gates to our subconscious are wide open. And through recognition by repetition, our minds slowly but unconsciously approve of the product.

Attacking the subconscious, ads sell us normality, they indirectly inform a young girl what she should strive for, how society expects her to look ideally and how she should carry herself.

Most devastatingly, ads tell a young girl that beautiful means resembling the a specific facial feature and body type, features that may be impossible to achieve.

We’ve all heard the stories from South Korea where young girls ask for a nose or eye surgery on their 16th birthday.

Young girls today are taught that if they want to be valued in this society, they need to buy certain products—some of which are hazardous to your health — to obtain these ‘white’ features.

And these features are undeniably caucasian. Testament to a society still enveloped in some sort of inferiority complex to a colonial ruler long gone.(?)

As young girls in Malaysia grow up and recognize that they don’t measure up to any of the beauty standards that society has put into spotlight, their self esteem plummets, they feel inadequate and they stop raising their hand in class.

Young girls who are taught that beauty is the most important thing a woman can be, become prone to eating disorders, depression and suicide.

One in four girls today fall into a clinical diagnosis; whether depression, eating disorders or other mental or emotional disorders.

According to the Reports on the State of Self Esteem, seven in 10 girls believe they are not good enough or “do not measure up in some way.” 98% of girls feel there is “an immense pressure to look a certain way.”

In ads, a woman is almost always portrayed as vulnerable, dependent, and dismissive. And in a world where women are always presented with the threat of sexual violence, the very dangerous and sexual education that ads teach our youths will only heighten the danger for young girls.

So the ideal of beauty in these ads don’t just affect girls, for boys they create a sense of expectation. Boys become socialized to expect an “ideal” girl to be a follower, defenseless, and reliant.

And when there arises a beautiful exception where a girl refuses these traits, we reject them as abnormal, overly ambitious, and tell them, as David Cameron said to MP Angela Eagle in 2011, “calm down, dear.”

Whilst Pepsi may be accused of trivializing the Black Lives Matter movement, here in Malaysia we are all responsible for perpetuating a mindset that consumes the confidence our young girls need to march towards a future where more women are leaders in the corporate or government sector.

If we want to talk about the glass ceiling then we need to also talk about what stops our young girls from raising their hands in class.

* The writer is a special officer to a Malaysian politician. He voices his opinions in several English dailies about the local political landscape and general news.

** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.