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Michael Jackson & that other time Pepsi ads fucked up majorly

Earlier this week, Pepsi smashed up the myth that ‘any publicity is good publicity’ by releasing a dreadful two-and-a-half minute advert featuring Kendall Jenner.

In an absurd and blatant attempt at cultural appropriation and trivialisation of the Black Lives Matter movement, the Kardashian model is seen handing out a can of soda to a handsome policeman, thereby presumably preventing the protest from turning sour. The ad is so bad it managed to offend people on both sides of the Twitter-ranting, deeply divided political spectrum. That’s an achievement which cannot be understated.

Yep, the ad was bad. But was it ‘literally setting the cultural icon and musical talent of a generation on fire, bad’? Not quite.

In 1984, Michael Jackson was at the peak of his powers. He’d just dropped Thriller, picking up just about every award available while whipping his arse with the Guinness book of records. Jackson, then still black and free of the later controversies which would taint his legacy, was on the verge of sacking his deadwood dad as manager and Beat It from his brothers. This was the dawn of one of the greatest solo careers in the history of music.

Naturally, advertisers were all over it. It’s Human Nature. One of the few privileged brands to secure the King of Pop’s image were, you guessed it, Pepsi.

On 27 January 1984, Michael Jackson was filming an admittedly really cool commercial alongside his brothers, in a quasi-concert performance inside Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium. It included a ‘remastered’ version of Billie Jean with Pepsi-friendly lyrics, and featured the classic stage moves which made him the world’s biggest star. See below:

In a sudden freak accident, a planned pyrotechnic explosion went off too early behind MJ’s head. It set his hair on fire, while cameras continued to roll. He eventually received help from bystanding crew members, who tried to put the fire out. Jackson suffered third-degree burns to his scalp. Years later, his autopsy would reveal that he wore a wig because his hair never properly grew back after burning.

Initially transferred to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, Jackson “was noted to be quite shaken up with palm-sized area of 2nd and small area of 3rd degree burn,”. There was also a “central 25-to-50 cent piece area of deeper burn.”

The seriousness of the injuries, causing unimaginable scalp pain meant Jackson had to be given strong painkiller, including the powerful opiate narcotic Darvocet, to be taken every 3 hours after his release from hospital. Davocet has since been pulled from the U.S. market after the FDA cited health risks. You have to be a pretty fucking toxic med to be pulled from the US drug market…

For many, the Pepsi ad incident was Startin’ Something bigger. It was the turning point which would spark Jackson’s life-long addiction to a catalogue of prescribed drugs and other potions. Jackson’s relentless decline came to a tragic end just 15 years later in June 2009, when he overdosed on Propofol, an efficacious sedative generally used for operational anesthesia, but which he basically used as sleep-inducing magic beans.

I guess in the grand scheme of Pepsi ads, the Jenner thing was a relative success?

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