First, a confession: I’m addicted to Diet Pepsi. The vending machine down the hall from my office has taken thousands of dollars from me over the past four years. Perhaps that is why when I first heard about Pepsi’s new social media campaign, The Pepsi Refresh Project, in which Pepsi brand loyalists get to both propose and vote for the philanthropic/entrepreneurial projects the company should support, I became instantly hooked on the concept. I mean, what’s not to like about a billion dollar corporation funding up to 32 new cause-based projects per month to the tune of $1.3 million based entirely on the recommendations of people like me who know the brand so intimately?
Officially, the Pepsi Refresh Project rewards “great ideas” that will have a “positive impact” on communities around the world as determined by an “online democratic voting process”. Participants submit project ideas organized according to the dollar amounts they are seeking ($250K, $50K, $25K, or $5K) and then proceed to mobilize voters to support their endeavors. The top vote getters each month in each dollar category then become eligible for funding. Voters can search for projects that interest them based on six thematic categories, which include Health, Arts & Culture, Food & Shelter, The Planet, Neighborhoods and Education. Since January, Pepsi has funded 96 ideas, including research for curing Spinal Muscular Atrophy, revamping science classrooms, and preserving a local movie theater in Rosendale, NY.
It is pretty easy to find the Pepsi Refresh Project refreshing. Where previously corporate giving was a top down process, it now seems to be driven by the Pepsi brand community’s valuation of what ideas are worth funding and what meanings the Pepsi brand ought to be associated with. Pepsi appears to be redefining the relationship between consumerism and (corporate) citizenship together with the emerging Pepsi generation. If Pepsi’s ultimate aim is to get its brand community to buzz its praises and spread the viral gospel, well I guess it’s working, ‘cuz here I am.
Of course, the project isn’t above reproach. Though you don’t need to be a Pepsi drinker to either submit an idea or vote for one, participation is limited to US residents — Pepsi’s global development initiatives are still dictated to the rest of the world’s inhabitants from on high – who are uploading English-only project ideas and are willing to abide by Pepsi’s self-proclaimed “common sense” rules, which amongst other things preclude submissions that “suggest boycotts or negative action against any business or enterprise”.
Moreover, while Pepsi pitches the Refresh Project as exemplifying democratic decision-making, participants with the largest email databases and established online social networks dominate the contest. Winning is less dependent on convincing voters of the value of your idea than it is on mobilizing repeat voting from a support network already on board with your project. As the Pepsi Refresh toolkit explains, the real work is in “[using] your creativity to keep your supporters engaged and updated throughout the entire month of voting. They’ll be able to vote for you once a day”. Contest rules reward those that have mastered reputation-enhancing web tools like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter and have garnered a significant online following. Less digitally-savvy-or-inclined organizations are inevitably at a disadvantage no matter how great their ideas might be. This is especially true of projects emerging out of economically disadvantaged communities, which often lack the technological resources and time-requirements needed to spread their message virally or get supporters to vote consistently.
The socialist-wannabe in me recognizes that these asymmetries, coupled with the project’s neoliberal conceit that private corporations are viable sources of funding for social programs, pose significant problems. Many social programs are as necessary as they are necessarily unpopular, and should therefore never be subject to market whims and consumer taste preferences. Still, I’ll admit that there is also something intriguing about this opportunity that makes it seem like a war of position worth engaging in, especially for progressive-minded academics.
In spite of its skewed democratic principles, can the Pepsi Refresh Project be tactically useful for scholars? What if Antenna’s editors successfully mobilized their contributors, readers, Facebook friends, and Twitter followers (not to mention their contributors and readers’ Facebook friends and Twitter followers) to vote repeatedly for a project that say, developed a local variant of the current website that engaged Madisonians more directly on media-related issues vital to their community? Wouldn’t the outcome outweigh the fraught income source? Then again, perhaps this is all just caffeine-and-Splenda induced folly… Can someone please loan me a dollar?