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PepsiCo CEO Admits She Pulled Kendall Jenner Ad Because ‘I Saw People Upset’

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Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi (left) says she was pained at the thought that her company offended those who took umbrage at the controversial Kendall Jenner Pepsi ad (right). (Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The New York Times/Pepsi screenshot)

For PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, the uproar over the Kendall Jenner ad took some time to understand. The model sparked outrage in April when she starred in a cola commercial that seemed to solve police brutality by handing a cop a can of Pepsi. The clip didn’t even make it onto TV screens nationwide before it was pulled from online platforms.


So why did things go sour? Nooyi has spent a good amount of time trying to figure that out.

“I’ve thought about it a lot because I looked at the ad again and again and again trying to figure out what went wrong — because it was a peace march, not a protest march,” she told Fortune Thursday, Sept. 21, opening up about the ad for the first time. “It was people in happiness coming together. I realized the scene that caused the most consternation was the final one when Kendall Jenner gave a Pepsi to the policeman, and it linked back to Black Lives Matter.”

Many felt the final scene positioned Jenner as a hero of the Black Lives Matter movement by recreating the iconic image of BLM protester Ieshia Evans, who faced police in riot gear in Baton Rouge, La., during demonstrations over the July 2016 police slaying of Alton Sterling.

“This has pained me a lot because this company is known for diversity, and the fact that everybody who produced the commercial and approved the commercial did not link it to Black Lives Matter made me scratch my head,” Nooyi said. “I had not seen that scene. And I take everything personally. The minute I saw people upset, I pulled it. And you know what, it’s not worth it. There were people on both sides, but at the end of the day, our goal is not to offend anybody.”

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In 2016, PepsiCo had 36 percent of nonwhite Americans make up the senior executive pool. Plus, Nooyi told CNBC that growing diversity is a “business imperative. It begs the question of why no one felt inclined to speak up against the controversial ad before it was produced.”

Well, to truly make an impact on such decisions, companies need to do more than just increase diversity — they need to promote inclusion. The Harvard Business Review conducted a study in early 2017 that discovered 37 percent of Black and Hispanic executives and 45 percent of Asian leaders feel they “need to compromise their authenticity.” That means such managers can’t completely be themselves, which could deter them from speaking up on matters of representation.

The HBR recommends companies engage in building inclusive leadership by “ensuring that team members speak up and are heard; making it safe to propose novel ideas; empowering team members to make decisions; taking advice and implementing feedback; giving actionable feedback; and sharing credit for team success.”

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