Last week’s backlash to the Pepsi ad featuring Kendall Jenner and an army of hipster-looking protesters was fast and fierce. Accused of “co-opting the resistance,” and insensitivity to movements like Black Lives Matter, Pepsi was forced to pull the ad within 24 hours.

The irony of the fiasco is that Pepsi was repping social justice long before it was cool — and forged real progressive change along the way. But in their haste to build a firewall between social justice and corporate capitalism, Pepsi’s haters have missed the ways in which the two are not merely compatible, but in many ways mutually reinforcing.

More Woke Than Coke

Flashback to 1940, just a couple years after Walter S. Mack Jr. assumed the reins as CEO of Pepsi-Cola Company. At the time, Pepsi was struggling in the shadow of the Coca-Cola behemoth, whose sales outnumbered Pepsi’s twenty-five to one. But Mack, who described himself as “an unrepentant capitalist and a liberal,” was up for a fight.

In the pre-civil rights era, companies like Coca-Cola systematically refrained from advertising to African-American populations. Mack’s insight was to see this as an opportunity, not just to make money, but to break down barriers. Risking a backlash from white conservatives, he built  an all-black team of sales representatives who traveled across the country, often riding on segregated trains or in private cars that shielded them from harassment.

World War II’s sugar rations forced Pepsi into hiatus, but when the war economy subsided Mack got back at it. In 1947, he hired Edward F. Boyd, an African-American adman who later became known as one of the fathers of niche-marketing. Boyd crafted ads for Pepsi that celebrated black cultural and professional achievements, and above all portrayed African-Americans as normal, middle-class consumers. It was this marketing push that ultimately drove Pepsi’s rise to the number two soda company in America.

The Highest Common Denominator

While today we cringe at the bourgie-bohemian protesters in Pepsi’s protest ad, in the not-so-distant past being portrayed as bourgeois conferred dignity and legitimacy. After all, the opposite of marginalized is mainstream. Thus the mainstreaming power of commercialization has the salutary effect of extending social recognition to non-traditional groups.

Commerce supports diversity, not just in terms of the varieties of products and services that are produced, but also the lifestyle, ethnic, and cultural demographics that are catered to. This shows up in Pepsi’s ad through its multicultural cast, a style of advertisement that even has a name: “the total market approach.” Instead of segmenting consumers, like the niche strategy employed by Pepsi in its early years, a total market strategy focuses on a pro-unity theme that integrates many market segments at once. Ads that use total marketing can feel generic — Pepsi’s protestors carry banal signs that read “Peace” and “Join the conversation” — yet the genericness is the point. Appealing to multiple groups at once requires finding a common denominator, the highest of which is social justice.

Who could forget Coca-Cola’s 2014 Super Bowl ad featuring America The Beautiful sung in seven languages? It also caused a backlash, but that didn’t stop Coca-Cola from reprising it for Super Bowl 51. Some conservatives took to Twitter to call for a Coke boycott, offended by the idea that American patriotism can translate into Arabic, but many more viewers found it downright inspiring.

My recent favorite in this genre is an ad by the Canadian beer company, Molson. In the ad, a beer fridge is set up somewhere in downtown Toronto, with a digital lock that only opens after Molson’s famous slogan “I am Canadian” is uttered in six different languages. With a foreign born population of 50%, it doesn’t take long for the Torontonians that pass by to crack the lock, and celebrate multiculturalism with some public intoxication.

Social Justice as an Intangible Asset

Years after Pepsi bubbled to the top of the soda industry on a strategy of black inclusion, the car company, Subaru, reversed their mid-’90s economic decline by leveraging niche marketing to lesbians. In the days of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” direct marketing to a gay demographic was rare for a major corporation, much less an automaker. So to avoid persecution, Subaru hid esoteric hints in their ads, a marketing technique later dubbed “gay vague.” The subtextual hints would resonate with lesbian consumers, but go undetected by everyone else. “It’s Not a Choice. It’s the Way We Were Built,” one ad reads, ostensibly in reference to the Subaru Outback’s superior all-wheel drive.

Twenty years later, and Amazon’s first hit television series is about a middle-age man’s transition to being a woman, no subtext required. Or as a recent Bud Light ad put it, “labels belong on beer, not people.”

The social justice orientation of corporations is no accident. Corporations, especially large ones, derive a significant and growing share of their value from intangible assets like branding. So when we are all reminded that Bill O’Reilly is a serial sexual harasser, corporate advertisers run for the hills, with the few that stay back catching serious flack. There’s even a website that tracks the hundreds of major companies that rushed to speak out against President Trump’s executive order on immigration. “Be in great company,” the site reads. Not to be outdone, Starbucks pledged to employ 10,000 refugees over the next five years.

Markets thus promote conformism and nonconformism at the same time. On the one hand, entrepreneurs who find a new way of doing things are showered with spectacular rewards. But that profit signal also induces copycats, who, in time, universalize what was once new and edgy, until that too becomes boring and mainstream, reigniting the cycle. Struggling corporations have a market incentive to bring marginalized groups into the fold, while successful corporations protect their brand by conforming tightly to the spirit of times. The cumulative effect has been a continuous ratcheting-up of social acceptance, driven not by cynical co-optation, but by the impersonal logic of collective action.

Globalizing Justice

The quest for new markets has also made large corporations among the most internationalist and cosmopolitan institutions on earth. In the era of Trump and Brexit, where would we be without multinational supply chains and flows of foreign direct investment, which put material limitations on resurgent nationalist ideologies, and create natural lobbies for free trade and the free movement of labor?

At the social level, globalization has also helped reduce orientalism, or the propensity of Western elites to make patronizing representations of foreign cultures. Instead, those cultures now have the means to represent themselves on a global stage. The result has been a blossoming of cultural exchange and admixture (accusations of “cultural appropriation” notwithstanding), from Hong Kong action movies to South African rap music, and a Hollywood that increasingly produces films for a truly global audience.

Philosophers Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue, in their sharp critique of “exotic tourism,” that the only truly non-exploitative mode of international travel is the business trip. Unlike a trust fund kid’s quest for self-discovery along the Ganges river, the sole pretense of a business trip is mutual benefit. And in the handshake that seals the deal, there lies a reciprocal recognition of equal dignity that transcends blood and soil.

The global orientation of multinational corporations was captured most beautifully in DHL’s masterful tribute to global trade. “The more the world keeps on trading,” a soft-spoken female narrator says, with an unplaceable accent, “the better it’s going to get, for everyone, everywhere.”


The inauthentic feel of Pepsi’s ad ultimately comes down to squeamishness over their motivation. Pepsi is a profit-motivated business, of course, but if you really care about police violence or criminal justice reform, shouldn’t you hope for it to be profitable? Take Uber, which has made reducing employment barriers for nonviolent ex-offenders part of their business model. Problems are always easier to ignore when there’s no possibility of making money solving them.

The writer Rory Ellwood put it succinctly in an excellent piece on Mattel’s decision to release a “feminist Barbie,” complete with blue hair and curvy hips: “Social justice causes are far more likely to succeed when allied with capitalism, and fail when opposed to it.”

Or to paraphrase Adam Smith, it was not from the benevolence of PepsiCola Co. that it created some of the first corporate sales jobs for African-Americans, and produced for blacks the sort of middle-class goods that whites had long enjoyed, but from its self-interest. The embargo on advertising to blacks was a form of what economists call “taste-based discrimination,” which, as the great neoliberal economist Gary Becker showed, requires a level of tacit collusion that’s simply unsustainable under competitive capitalism. Mack was a progressive, but he also wanted to make a buck, and there’s nothing dishonorable about that.

This insight is the inspiration for the Twitter hashtag #NLSJ, or “Neoliberal Social Justice.” One part tongue-in-cheek, one part utterly serious, #NLSJ is a small but growing movement of people who have embraced social justice as the telos of commercial culture and global capitalism, and the corporate aesthetic that comes with it.

Put in that light, Pepsi’s protest ad was a masterpiece.

Samuel Hammond

Samuel Hammond is a Poverty and Welfare Policy Analyst at the Niskanen Center. His research interests include the political economics of the welfare state, aviation regulation, and social capital theory.


  1. Keita April 21, 2017 at 2:30 pm -

    This article is written from a ridiculously privileged perspective. Not from a movement perspective. If Pepsi or any other capital was actually progressive then all jobs would be unionized in order to stabilize the economy.

  2. Bill Long April 16, 2017 at 11:07 pm -

    I see a few problems with this attempt to characterize PepsiCo as a social justice champion. For one, when Salvador Allende’s presidential campaign was gaining traction in 1970, PepsiCo was one of several corporations with interests in Chile–including Chase Manhattan, ITT, Anaconda, Kennecott, Ford–which called on the U.S. government to intervene. The outcome was far from a shining example of corporate social responsibility. Then again, the situation did involve Henry Kissinger, later named as one U.S. foreign relations hero to a former state official who became the DNC nominee for U.S President in 2016. On the whole, establishment liberals in the U.S. have a very spotty social justice record.

  3. Michael Pellagatti April 15, 2017 at 11:46 am -

    Samuel Hammond,

    While you sit there, all comfortable, in your Ivory tower with your Ivy League education; do you really think that you are in touch with the zeitgeist?

    “Social Justice Needs Capitalism” this is the title of your article and you take the liberty of explaining the dynamics between the two. Yes social justice needs capitalism like how batman needs the joker. The existence of one enables the other. As long as the common people are exploited, discriminated against, and oppressed — then so there will be social backlash against the system that is doing the exploitation, discrimination, and the oppression.

    When one ceases so shall the other. Do you really think that people like protesting; do you think they like risking their health; do you think they like facing ostracsicm from their families? Probably not, but knowing that a union busting company like Pepsi supports their message will certainly be reassuring, no?

    You don’t get it. Leave your ivory tower, hit the streets; and instead of pontificating, listen why don’t you?

  4. Sista April 15, 2017 at 4:47 am -

    I think there’s a difference between using your platform or name that you’ve already made for yourself to take a stance on a social justice movement or hot button issue and trying to capitalize on people’s lives and actual issues they have to face. That’s why people are upset at Pepsi. Giving police a Pepsi or even a Coke won’t end police brutality or civilian hostility towards police or ease race relations, but that’s the message Pepsi tried to send. There wasn’t a niche market that they were standing up for, regardless of whether or not it was to actually be there for a certain market or just take their money.
    Coca-Cola making that multilingual Super Bowl Commercial was during a time full of tension between races and ethnicities, yet it made a strong ad with a strong message that clearly took a stance on a serious issue and stood for what the company or at least the CEO wanted the company to stand for, regardless of if they lost customers in the knowledge that if there were people with opposing views willing to boycott, then maybe they weren’t people they wanted to be their consumers anyway.
    This Pepsi commercial isn’t that. The commercial tries to “solve a problem” with their product. It’s such a simple solution to such a complicated issue it’s very easy to see why people are in arms.

  5. Hokwei April 15, 2017 at 1:11 am -

    Wow. That was about as lame an attempt to defend that article as I can imagine. If you can’t see the difference between this farce of an ad and the other ads you listed, then you’re not fit for this conversation. The Pepsi ad diminishes the importance of protest and the danger of police. A cute white girl giving a cop a soda isn’t going to save lives or negate the need for protest. Ugh…your sorry attempt at defense almost bugs me more than the stupid commercial.

  6. David Freeman April 14, 2017 at 9:13 pm -

    What this suggests is not that social justice movements need capitalism to succeed, but rather that capitalists will use the values and emotions of their target markets to increase profits. They will be on the side of social justice if it means profit. They’ll love diversity. They’ll publicly praise the immigrant who started Budweiser. They will be whoever and whatever you want them to be, provided it means you continue to consume the product. In this way, social justice remains subservient to profit, and if social justice became unprofitable, there is no guarantee corporations would continue to market themselves as its agents.

  7. Leo April 14, 2017 at 5:47 pm -

    This is incredibly wrong. It’s almost as though this liberal doesn’t realize the connection to oppression of all kinds and capitalism (fun fact: they are inexorably linked in our culture today).

  8. Dan wars April 14, 2017 at 5:39 pm -

    Not surprised that you failed to mention Pepsi’s President in the 60s / 70s Don Kendall, Nixons buddy who was a staunch conservative who muddled Pepsi in with the CIA’s dealings with Latin America. You also fail to mention how Pepsi is sugary belly wash that is helping to create a generation of diabetics and morbidly obese children, especially in lower class mostly minority communities. They’re a huge problem and should be regarded as such. Get bent.

  9. Karl Marx April 14, 2017 at 5:25 pm -

    Quite possibly the most liberal thing I’ve ever read.

  10. Matteo Austin April 14, 2017 at 5:12 pm -

    Disgusting. Almost every point you make is a failure to continue the actual cognitive process unfolding… arriving at some slanted, pro-Statist, regurgitated 20th century crap. You are a mirror of the conservative mind, as is most liberalism today. Capitalism is a hegemonic and hierarchical disease not to be conflated with social taxonomy or biological evolution; it is an entropic energy drain; it is intrinsically flawed in its design, requiring that a certain segment of the population live in poverty; it is and always will be classist and for chastes; its laden with the hegemonic and historically brutal components of economic slavery and pushes minorities into more hardship than some schmuck schilling for Pepsi can even begin to dissect in 1000 words of academically pretentious and hollow theoretical nonsense. Drawing it up as otherwise is a very real denial of our shared reality and a dangerous misrepresentation of something that is as utopian as McCarthyism was yesterday.

  11. Loren Clupny April 14, 2017 at 2:21 pm -

    At first I thought this was parody. Capitalism contributes or is directly responsible for all of the issues that social justice movements are fighting to correct. The prison industrial complex as an example, could not exist without capitalism. Positive advertising is not going to fix that, and corporations are responsible for that – they will not help themselves out of existence for the betterment of society. At the end of the day, these companies are exclusively focused on the bottom line. The only reason these ads see air-time is because the companies that make them think that they will help them sell more product. Social justice movements are not more likely to succeed with capitalism, they are more likely to make superficial advances for very few people without ever addressing the roots or systemic nature of the problems.

    • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 2:27 pm

      I disagree! There’s no real connection between incarceration rates and capitalism. Just look at China or the former Soviet Union. Among developed, liberal democracies, the United States is a huge outlier in the scope of people it imprisons — many in connection to a misguided war on drugs. In other words, the US prison system is as unjust as it is in large part because the US government has tried and failed to prevent markets from flourishing. A neoliberal approach to drug policy would see either decriminalization or legalization, and a shift in funding from prisons to harm reduction and rehabilitation.

      • Connor Owens April 14, 2017 at 2:48 pm

        The mistake you make here is in seeing the capitalist state as somehow separate and distinct from capitalism itself. The state and the market under capitalism both form part of the same organism: a system class-rule in which a dominant minority wield power over a disempowered majority, based primarily on the extraction of value from the majority.

        Whether firms are formally nationalised or privatised, they’re still capitalist. So “the market” is not some sort of realm of freedom apart from the coercive state. The market itself is a subset of the state. It couldn’t exist without the state to enforce contracts and protect private property.

        The criminalisation of drugs currently helps the neoliberal powers-that-be in a way which decriminalising them wouldn’t – even if it would suit the “true believers” in neoliberalism more (see Dawn Paley’s Drug War Capitalism).

        Long story short: Commercial powers do nothing to advance social justice in ways which actually strike at the systemic roots of social problems, because that would mean striking at their bottom-line. They just as often prey upon racist, misogynist, and queerphobic tropes to sell their products to people for whom those things are appealing. When a corporation acts “woke”, it’s nothing but capitalism trying to cannibalise its own dissent. E.g. Cigarette companies preying upon the women’s movement by advertising women smoking as something empowering.

        • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 3:18 pm

          Interesting theory! Setting aside that your conflation of nationalized and privatized organization as both “capitalist” is intellectually incoherent, you still haven’t explained why the US is such an outlier on the drug war. It seems more easily explained as a contingent fact about US politics, our Puritan culture, and a history of proxy wars in drug-producing parts of Latin America. Of course, Europe, Canada and Australia are all neoliberal capitalist democracies, as well, and take a much different approach to drug law and criminalization. Liberal economists like Dan D’Amico have done excellent work charting the ugly origins of criminal law more generally. And of course, people like the Koch Brothers have done more to advance criminal justice reform than all the Socialist Meme pages in the world combined 🙂

          • Krombopulos April 14, 2017 at 5:05 pm

            Considering that the original economic policy of the centralized USSR was state capitalism, I’m just going to take that quip about “intellectual incoherence” and attribute that to your ignorance on the subject. Capitalism is the accrual of capital by a class, the bourgeoisie; whether that takes place via the exact mechanisms of the state (its governing structures) or via its economic structure (again predisposed on the capitalist state’s defense of certain conditions, like property rights via some executive body, the police, military, etc) is of no difference materially. As well, considering we’ve done a good job of exporting the drug war to countries which are objectively of different cultural origin, your shifting of the blame to our Puritanical cultural heritage seems lazy and ill-thought.

            • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 5:12 pm

              USSR was state capitalism

              your ignorance on the subject

              Oh my goodness, you old-school Marxists are just too much xD

              • Slimy April 14, 2017 at 5:27 pm

                This is a non argument, the USSR was a state capitalist nation. All the capital went to the state, if it were communist there would be no ‘state’ to begin with. Liberals one again proving that only through insults and emotion can they make arguments.

                • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 5:51 pm

                  “True neoliberalism was never tried!”

          • The Deepest Red April 14, 2017 at 3:43 pm

            Also read The New Jim Crow. It explains quite well how the drug war was explicitly developed as a method of social control, crafted to counter the rising power of anti-capitalist black liberation movements like the Panthers.

            • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 3:48 pm

              Oh, no doubt.

      • Paul April 14, 2017 at 2:36 pm

        Are you blind to the *for-profit* prison industry?

        • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 2:45 pm

          There are also things called hit-men. Profit can literally be connected to any activity. The point is to align market incentives to produce social goods, which requires a. not deliberately working against market forces, and b. celebrating markets when they work! Profit, per se, is a totally amoral indicator. That said, “private prisons” are still government sanctioned entities that get their revenues via contracts. I’d like to see prisons abolished, so it’s one area where I’d like to see much less efficiency 🙂

  12. Nick Pagan April 14, 2017 at 1:35 pm -

    So justice to the author means advertising and appearance in film? Did you not notice that black advertising and black film already exist side by side with enormous poverty, police brutality, a prison system which is in many ways a continuation of slavery, and I could go on for hours describing the problems *caused* by capitalism, which no amount of *advertising* will ever begin to address. With no due respect, the author evidently has their head so far up their ass that they can’t even see how absurdly inadequate their view of the roots of social problems are for the millions of people who can’t comfortably kick back and get paid to write an article for Liberal Currents about how Pepsi putting black faces in ads or shamelessly wave-riding a movement that aims to upend the system they rule over…

    • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 2:12 pm

      In this article I deliberately chose to focus on social / cultural inclusion. But global capitalism obviously solves material injustice as well 🙂 Thanks for reading.

      • Connor Owens April 14, 2017 at 2:55 pm

        The majority of the world is capitalist.

        The majority of the world is also poor.

        Need we say more?

        Capitalism put the mass of the world into poverty through centuries of empire and colonialism, and now – in its “democratic” form – tries to portray itself as a salve for the very poverty and inequality it created. It’s like applauding a wife-beater for driving her to the hospital afterwards.

        If there’s going to be a cure for poverty and for social hierarchies, it has to come from solutions beyond the traditional (false) binary of the state and the market – from decentralised forms of free cooperation which put people themselves in the driver’s seat of major political-economic decisions, e.g. participatory budgeting, neighbourhood assemblies, community land trusts, worker-run cooperatives, commons-based peer-production, etc.

        • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 3:39 pm

          Ha Ha Ha

          • Brandon April 14, 2017 at 3:57 pm

            Great rebuttal Sam, really demonstrates the strength in your position.

            • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 4:01 pm


          • The Deepest Red April 14, 2017 at 3:44 pm

            Not an argument.

            • Samuel Hammond April 14, 2017 at 3:51 pm


              • Connor Owens April 16, 2017 at 7:52 am

                “Economic freedom” is a Friedmanite term for the “freedom” of the business classes to exploit as much as they want.

                Slaveowners in the old American south made the same kind of appeals in defence of their system: the “liberty” to own slaves.

              • Brandon April 14, 2017 at 3:59 pm

                Oh ok, so if you do well within capitalism, capitalism works better for you individually.

                Lets just ignore structural violence and societal inequality, and the flensing behavior it has on resources both human and environmental.