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By Noemi Pollack

The first time that Pepsi elects to forgo its past 26 years of advertising on the Super Bowl and selects to spend $20 million for a massive multi-channel interactive social media campaign, it collides with the Annual Trust Barometer from Edelman PR, which reports that peer to peer trust has surprisingly waned in favor of more credible sources.  Not that, at first glance, one has anything to do with the other, except that just when viral marketing seems like a smart strategy, smarter than even Super Bowl advertising, the Trust Barometer’s survey results show that trust in friends and peers as credible sources has dropped by almost half, from 45% to 25%, in the last two years.

And the parameters of the Pepsi Refresh campaign is all about the populous votes of “friends and peers” who will decide as to which ideas or projects Pepsi should fund in grant money in six categories: health, arts and culture, food and shelter, the planet, the neighborhoods and education. It will be the people’s choice as to which of the 1000 ideas submitted are to receive grants that range from $5,000 to $250,000, figures not to be taken lightly.  And the criteria for voting is exactly — what?

How does that work?  “Oh this is cool, I think I will vote for this.” Click. Or, “My boyfriend is really into bands, so I think I will vote for that.” Click.  How about, “I’ll feel good if I vote for the local health clinic.” Click.  Some ideas submitted are more political as in “Help free healthcare clinic expand services to uninsured in rural Tennessee (TN).”  Click.  (I live in rural TN.)  Or I live in Kansas so I vote for, “Build a fitness center for all students in Hays, Kansas community.”

Click. Click. Click.  “And the check goes to…” Every month, Pepsi will award up to 32 grants to projects voted on by the most clicks.

By all accounts the “ Pepsi Refresh” initiative is everything that an ideal interactive campaign can be – creative, innovative, highly engaging and very popular, while building on the brand in a fun and social way.  But I venture to say that the challenge that Pepsi faces, and that other companies are bound to also face, as they delve deeper into social media’s ever-expanding communication opportunities is that at some point, critical thinking will matter.

Look, the “Pepsi Refresh” program should be nothing like an American Idol segment where voters root for the next star just because they “like.”  Nor should it be like clicking on “like” on a photo or comment on Facebook.  In creating a program that allows a populous vote to decide on grants, votes that can make a difference as to whether a school’s music program gets funded or whether an elder care facility expands its programs, Pepsi’s challenge is to go against the very fiber of social media’s whims, set a criteria upon which they can deliberate, and turn the populous vote into a credible one.

Failing that, it is but a game — one that is being played out with a lot of money, with no sense of fairness and with little trust in the voters’ selection.

Any serious and worthy projects submitted should not mistake it for anything else.