Pepsi Is Not the Official Soda of the Pandemic

A banner suggesting a soda sponsorship at a Walmart testing site was embarrassing for everyone.

Bottles of Pepsi soda on a shelf
That’s what I like. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Is Pepsi trying to be the official soda of the coronavirus? It certainly looked that way based on this banner, captured in a viral tweet earlier this week:

As you can see, the banner—posted near a COVID-19 testing site at a Walmart in Orlando—not only includes Pepsi’s logo, but has an enticing image of the sweet stuff itself, plus some copy: “That’s What I Like,” which is Pepsi’s first new tagline in two decades and debuted in ad campaigns during this year’s Golden Globes and NFL wild-card playoff games. Check, check, and check—it’s an ad. Pour yourself a cold one and prepare to get your nose swabbed.

So: Is Pepsi sponsoring the testing sites in the Walmart parking lots? Not so fast.

For one thing, the slogan might be outdated. Pepsi told Business Insider that it has had to pull some of its ad campaigns after discovering from surveys that consumers would prefer that companies revise the tone of their marketing during the pandemic. Pepsi recently discontinued its #Summergram campaign, which featured people enjoying themselves outside.

Twitter user @Firr, who posted the picture, said he came across two such signs while he was out getting food on his lunch break at a restaurant near his local Walmart. “I was trying to figure out how someone thought that was a good idea,” @Firr told me over the phone. “It seemed kind of messed up. Like getting a birthday card when your grandma dies.” He noted that the testing site—which consisted of two shipping containers, cones, and ropes—had been set up in the Orlando Walmart’s parking lot and the signs were on either corner.

The tweet quickly took off, with many commenters comparing the spectacle to the 2006 comedy Idiocracy, in which a sports drink company acquires the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The awkward look was not lost on the brands in question. A spokesperson for Pepsi said in a statement, “This was an unfortunate mistake by one of our local sales associates that in trying to move with speed to get this important testing message up did not follow proper approval protocols. The sign has since been taken down.” When I reached out to Pepsi associates in the Orlando area, they referred me back to the company’s corporate communications team.

A spokesperson for Walmart also said, “We know how important access to testing is in our local communities, and there was nothing negative intended by the banner. The local teams were trying to raise awareness about the testing site in order to help more people in the community. As soon as we learned about it, it was taken down.” It is unclear who had the sign printed. Both Pepsi and Walmart attributed it to their own local employees.

The Pepsi logo has apparently been popping up on other Walmart coronavirus signage as well:

Walmart has opened 139 drive-thru testing sites in 22 states as of May 15, including 14 in Florida. The test involves people self-administering a nasal swab while remaining in their own vehicles. Results typically come back within two to five days, depending on the lab company facilitating the site. Pepsi has donated $50 million to the coronavirus response, a portion of which is funding testing and screening services.

This isn’t the first advertising misstep a major brand has made during the pandemic. Subway apologized in March after one of its Calgary locations began offering a free mask to customers who purchased any two regular sandwiches.

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