Faux Pas Reconsidered: Pepsi and Shea Moisture Advertising Blunders

Recently, Pepsi and Shea Moisture have created commercials that caused a negative reaction from their stakeholders.  This has caused me to re-think the idea of faux pas I talked about in my first crisis piece back in 1995.  Essentially an organizational faux pas is when an organization thinks it is doing something right but at least a portion of its stakeholders think is very wrong.  Managers are then embarrassed by their actions.  In later writings I dropped the notion of the faux pas but social media experiences of organizations call for its reconsideration.  Social media provide a platform for embarrassing organizations—publicly pointing out the organizational error.  This feature makes social media excellent media for creating paracrises and even actual reputational crises.


The Pepsi and Shea Moisture commercial faux pas are similar yet very different.  Each commercial lead to charges the organizations were tone deaf—they did not understand how stakeholders would react.  We should think in terms of a tone deafness scale.  Pepsi would be on the low end.  Pepsi made a poorly executed effort to enter the discussion about social unrest.  Pepsi responded by apologizing and removing the commercial from public view.  As their crisis response said:  “Pepsi was trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding. Clearly, we missed the mark and apologize. We are pulling the content and halting any further roll-out. We also apologize for putting Kendall Jenner in this position.”


Shea Moisture ran a commercial that feature three women talking about their hair.  The images are at the start of this blog.  The problem was the composition of the women in the ad did not fit the primary consumer of the product.  Here is a short summary of the controversy from the media:


“In a new campaign posted Monday, the hair and skincare company featured three women, one black and two white, embracing their natural hair. While the ad was presented as upbeat, SheaMoisture’s traditionally black customer base took issue over a lack of representation of different hair types and textures, as well as apparent abandonment of their traditionally loyal customers, mocking the brand for what was being called an “#allhairmatters” approach and ignoring their loyal demographic.”


Shea Moisture offered a very direct apology with a message on Facebook:


“Wow – we really f—ed this one up! Please know that our intent was not, & would never be, to disrespect our community.”


Some critics argued both cases were failures to listen to the audience.  Listening is an imprecise term, in reality it is a matter of understanding your stakeholders and how they are likely to react to your message.  While the two situations seem similar, the differences are more important and why we need a tone deafness scale.  Pepsi was 2 on the tone deafness scale.  Did Pepsi have a clear idea of how stakeholders would respond?  The answer is probably not.  The company should have anticipated some negative reaction simply because it was venturing into a controversial social issue with what it thought was a safe message of peace.  Pepsi was wrong, the reaction was much harsher but there is no indication that the negative reaction was from its core consumers.  Pepsi had created a paracrisis and managed the risk by removing the offensive ad and apologizing.  Though some people did not like the apology to Kendall Jenner, Pepsi was covering all of its bases.  After all, Pepsi selected her because should would appeal to a specific demographic.


Shea Moisture would be more like a 9 on the tone deafness scale.  Should Shea Moisture have anticipated a negative reaction from its core consumers?  The answer is Yes!  The ad appears to be a departure from the company’s core focus.  The company is trying to expand its consumer base but that should be done more carefully and should not offend the core audience in the process.  Shea Moisture created a greater crisis risk than did Pepsi because of the reaction of the core audience and should have anticipated the reaction more easily than Pepsi did.  Shea Moisture had created a reputational crisis—there was damage to the company’s reputation among loyal consumers.  Evidence of the damage can be found in many of the responses to the Facebook apology.  Again, Shea Moisture choose an appropriate response of removing the ad and apologizing.  However, some damage had been done to its relationship with its core audience.  We did not see similar damage for Pepsi. Simply put, Shea Moisture should have seen this coming while Pepsi might not have seen this coming.


We can turn to theory at this point to help explain why companies might make such mistakes and what that says about their competence to understand stakeholders.  The Dunning-Kruger Effect in psychology says that people who are incompetent at a task common judge their competence at the task incorrectly.  People who are bad at something often have no idea they are bad at it.  We can stick with the singing idea of tone deafness.  People who are bad at singing often think they are good because they do not have the knowledge or skills necessary for judging whether or not their singing is good or bad.  Once people learn the criteria for evaluation, they can judge their own ability better.  The Dunning-Kruger Effect provides one explanation for tone deaf advertising.  The people evaluating the ad lack the understanding of stakeholders (competencies) to properly evaluate how people will react to the ad.  Managers simply cannot see the problem with the ads until the stakeholders point out the flaws.  Incompetence about stakeholders is not a good look for an organization.  We can forgive Pepsi because knowledge of social unrest is not a core competency we would expect from a company.  However, managers should show greater caution when venturing into areas outside of their expertise.  Shea Moisture, on the other hand, should know how core consumers will react to messages that push the boundaries of the brand.  This is an expertise we would expect from a company.


Organizations provide a long history of ads that created paracrises and reputational crises and there is no reason to believe that will end soon.  We should look at the details of each case and not consider them as completely similar.  Yes, all are faux pas crises but we should consider the tone deafness range of those faux pas.  While it is important to understand the crisis type, is also important to consider variations within a crisis particularly with a crisis type as varied as a faux pas.



  1. Make your own arguments as to whether the Pepsi and Shea Moisture situations are paracrises or reputational crises.


  1. How can organizations avoid the Dunning-Kruger Effect with advertising?


  1. What types of advertising are most likely to create a negative reaction from stakeholders?


  1. Is there value in faux pas as a crisis type? Explain why or why not?


Some References


Coombs, W. T. (1995). Choosing the right words the development of guidelines for the selection of the “appropriate” crisis-response strategies. Management Communication Quarterly, 8(4), 447-476.


Dunning, D. (2011). 5 The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 247.



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