The Kendall Jenner Pepsi Memes Made You a Better Person. Think About It

Those cleverly captioned photos shared on social media can spark conversations and help build empathy.
Photo illustration via hocus-focus/iStock

Photo illustration via hocus-focus/iStock 

“If only Kendall Jenner had given Mike Brown, Philando Castile, Dontre Hamilton, Jamar Clark, Sandra Bland, Oscar Grant, Tamir Rice a @pepsi.”

“When you get a free Pepsi but remember you still get to use the tear gas for no reason anyway.”

“When the cops come and you only got Coca-Cola in the fridge.”

“Remember when Kendall Jenner handed that cop a refreshing Pepsi and ended systematic oppression for all of us?”

Memes of the moment. All social media users have seen them. We’re not always sure where they come from, but they often perfectly describe what we think or feel, and so we share them.

There’s the image of Jesus and with disciples as he holds out his hand to a crippled man. Instead of biblical text describing Jesus healing this man, there’s text that reads: “Sorry, I can’t heal you, you have a preexisting condition.” Or the image of Kermit the Frog sipping his Lipton tea: “It seems to me even heaven has a wall, a gate, and extreme vetting to get in. But that’s none of my business.”       

Those cleverly captioned photos tend to speak to particular ideologies and can sometimes exclude others unaccepting of those beliefs. Certainly they are the darlings of the social and political echo chambers that contribute to polarization. But what if they could provide a solution to ease these cultural and political barriers?

“They likely facilitate communication between groups that approve them, but also likely trigger the opposite in groups that disapprove them,” acknowledges neuroscientist and UCLA professor Marco Iacoboni. However, he believes some memes help us understand opposing ideals.

People on both sides of the political fence pay lip service to the idea that pre-existing conditions shouldn’t be an exclusionary factor for health insurance. “So, in this case the spreading of the meme should help in easing community negative political relations.”

Here’s how it works: There’s a special unit in our brains called mirror neurons, which are responsible for our ability to relate to others—or simply, to have empathy and compassion. Those neurons are triggered by visual stimuli—images. Perhaps not quite as effective as in-person exchanges, memes still can be ideal for activating our mirror neurons because they provide relatability through their depictions. They are much more effective than text-only communication methods, which often fail to translate across cultural and political boundaries.

While there are some exceptions, memes tend to oversimplify divisive political issues. After consulting with the researchers and their neuron science, I decided to ask another kind of expert: social media users.

Sierra Bowman, a 24-year-old Facebook user from Gwinnett, Georgia, says that whether a meme can trigger empathy depends on the creator’s intentions and which friends are posting it.

“I think memes can be on both sides,” she says. “It depends on who is posting, nature of the content, etc. I think if they can make you think, and make you laugh at the same time, that’s pretty good.”

If we can just harness those empathy neurons, memes can be starting places for conversations that might even bridge communication.

Many felt the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial trivialized protests against police brutality, and mocking memes immediately followed. The ad was pulled a day after it was released, but led to a great deal of discussion on social media, as demonstrated by one comment thread following an article on the ad-inspired memes:

Caracol comments: “There’s a difference between mocking the absurd and being offended by it. Life is indeed short, so don't be afraid to laugh at the memes that laugh at an utterly ridiculous advertisement.”

User mjmarksmd calls the ad “stupid. I understand (I hope) the left’s problem with it. But as a working moderate … the lives of the protagonists in this piece … an angry [Muslim] photographer … and an [Asian] cellist … seem absurd. Most working stiffs would wonder whats [sic] the ruckus and if we are getting home tonight.”

Devan Riley Martin adds, “As a person of color, I am not offended. I think it [sic] hilarious, eye rolling [sic] inducing fun. Just because people are mocking it, it doesn’t mean they are angry or outraged.” To which user Failidh replies, “I’m not a person of colour. It was a horrifyingly ignorant commercial.”

Clearly, memes, especially the ones that use humor as a tool, have a great deal of power and potential to influence our thinking, and the best outcome for them might be in building community.

Late Night host Stephen Colbert seemed to be saying exactly that when he commented on the Pepsi ad on Wednesday.

“We have a deeply divided nation. But today, it seems that everyone has come together to join the protest against the new protest ad from Pepsi.”