Pepsi, challenged: A bad campaign from a marketer big enough to know better

Chalk it up as a Pepsi challenge for the digital age: how to overcome a viral-marketing campaign gone bad. PepsiCo (PEP), the world's second-largest soda maker, is coming under fire for an edgy iPhone application meant to promote its AMP energy drink. Instead of inspiring 20 somethings to buy the orange-flavored AMP, the brand is getting flack from some consumers who call the application sexist and degrading.

A promotional video demos the free iPhone app, AMP UP Before You Score. Aimed at young male consumers, AMP UP coaches users on how to score with 24 categories of women. Once the user decides whether to hit on a cougar, a sorority girl, or 22 other stereotypes, the app suggests restaurants and pick-up lines -- and, like most viral-marketing campaigns, it includes a social-media feature that lets users "brag" about their conquests: "You got it? Flaunt it. Keep your buddies in the loop on email, Facebook or Twitter."
AMP's official comment on the app, from a representative, is this: "The AMP Energy iPhone application is only available to iPhone users 17 years and older who choose to opt in to the experience. The application was designed to entertain and appeal to AMP's target. We'll continue to monitor the feedback from all parties and act accordingly." But signs are already emerging that Pepsi senses it's overstepped a line of good taste. A Tweet from an AMP Energy account reads: "Our app tried 2 show the humorous lengths guys go 2 pick up women. We apologize if it's in bad taste & appreciate your feedback."

"You need to be edgy and highly creative to get noticed, and tying in something to stir debate is a tactic that is used to get attention," says Derrick Daye, managing partner of Rochester, New York–based brand consultancy The Blake Project. The danger for the brand, Daye says, is that the drink may become associated with this message, risking AMP's image not as an energy drink but as a brand that "beats down women."

Perhaps an even greater risk is what the backlash might mean for PepsiCo, Daye says: "What kind of light does that put Pepsi in, and its values toward women? That's the underlying question."

The AMP Energy campaign is a rare misstep for Pepsi, known for being one of the country's savvier marketing giants. PepsiCo spent $1.29 billion on advertising last year, making it the 23rd largest U.S. marketer, according to Advertising Age.

And Pepsi isn't the only company to use edgy, funny viral-marketing campaigns. 7-Eleven recently launched an online game to promote coffee taglined "Wake up with a hot Brazilian." But 7-Eleven's site lacks AMP's sexism; it's inclusive to female consumers, letting them deliver pickup lines to men in a virtual nightclub, and it's not intended for consumers to use in the real world.

AMP Energy's user reviews on the iTunes app store run the gamut. One reviewer slammed it with one star out of five, calling it "sexist and stupid." Another gave it five stars: "Everyone offended, this was not meant for you so back off."

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