Too Hot for Soda

Tyler, The Creator, 2012. Photo courtesy Incase flickr.

In the wake of the great goat devastation wrought by a Mountain Dew advertisement directed by rapper Tyler, the Creator, for the citrus soda, the media was rife with stories about ways that  brands that seek an “urban edge” often fall off that edge into the chasm of unintended consequences.

So it quickly became tough to find Mountain Dew’s series of Tyler’s three “Felicia the Goat” ads, the last of which featured a police lineup of black street toughs alongside a street-talking goat who warns a beat-up waitress on the other side of the glass that “snitches get stitches,” among other things. Outcry spread at internet speed – particularly following criticism from one professor and writer in particular, Syracuse University’s Boyce Watkins, who called it “arguably the most racist commercial in history.” Under pressure, Pepsi pulled the ads and started tweeting mea culpas.

There are plenty of reasons the ad was polarizing: it featured what could be perceived as negative stereotypes of young black men behind the lineup mirror being potentially fingered by a bruised white woman. The goat’s language evoked another controversial episode, a “Stop Snitching” video that featured basketball star Carmelo Anthony cavorting with a Baltimore drug dealer, one that had itself touched off another debate about race and law enforcement.

But Felicia mostly met with bad timing: the ads hit at the same time as a much more controversial – and serious – situation involving the rapper Lil Wayne, who had a valuable endorsement deal with Mountain Dew.

In a remix of a song called “Karate Chop,” released months earlier, Lil Wayne had rapped that he would make a woman’s private parts resemble Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old who was beaten to death in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling at a white woman. Life Magazine photos of Till’s disfigured face in an open casket became an early touchpoint for the modern civil rights movement; Lil Wayne’s callous comparison justifiably angered the Till family, eventually forcing an apology from the rapper, but not before the family drew attention to the issue by cranking up public pressure on PepsiCo. After the family deemed Lil Wayne’s apology insufficient, PepsiCo justifiably ended the relationship.

Here’s the thing, though: there’s a big difference between satire and stupid, and it’s apparent both through the content, the context, and the reaction of the artists.

Tyler actually produced a series of absurdly satiric commercials that was completely in line with his artistic and comedic vision, one that’s been on display from the start of his career and that of his troupe, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All.  Odd Future, after all, deployed its own edgy, profane, subversive and precociously artistic videos as a launching pad, and the commercial in question is no more racially offensive than a skit from, say, Chappelle Show. The group of toughs in the lineup is comprised of members of Odd Future, and there’s a social lesson here – it’s the goat who committed the crime, not the young black men who are lined up alongside him.

The ad shows a common situation – the police lineup – turned sideways, which is Tyler’s view of the world. Before the outcry, in fact, industry publication Adweek had praised the first ad in the series. Even more interesting is the context of Tyler’s hiring: it’s a lot more exciting that someone wanted to see if he could bring his sense of humor to bear behind the camera than it is for the ersatz corporate promotion of a Justin Timberlake or an Alicia Keys to “Creative Director” of Bud Light Platinum or Blackberry.

As for Lil Wayne, however, there was no holding a satirical mirror up to our sensibilities. The rap was misogynistic and, yes, racist in its use of an inhumane tragedy as its vehicle for that misogyny. It wasn’t cutting-edge, it just cut.

And the situation created artistic blowback, as well, pulling Tyler’s ads out of their original context and into a much less satire-friendly environment. Pepsi was lambasted for the commercials, and the assessment was that it had overreached in its attempts to appeal to a multicultural audience while also underachieving by failing to hire an advertising agency that might specialize in that group.

Maybe those agencies could have told Pepsi that Tyler’s ideas were too hot for the purpose of selling soda. But they might not have: Frank Cooper, who is Pepsi’s global director of marketing, has worked for several music and entertainment companies, including Def Jam, and he’s made it a priority for the company to link up with musicians. He’s also a Harvard Law grad and a smart guy – he had to pick up what the Creator was putting down, and had to have thought that the message wasn’t out of alignment with the brand.

Misogynistic imagery aside – and yes, it is there in Tyler’s commercial, in the form of the beaten-up waitress on the other side of the glass, but again, there’s a more complicated storyline here – Cooper and Pepsi should get the benefit of the doubt. What Tyler did may have been a misfire, but it didn’t miss by much, it wasn’t meant to offend, and the misfire was, in a sense, due to a foul-smelling crosswind. Meanwhile, what Lil Wayne did wasn’t hot at all: It was just plain cold, and he ended up where he deserved to be, on the wrong side of history. Pepsi should be held to account for its role in helping to further his career.

I wanted to discuss this more, and tried to reach out to Cooper via Pepsi contacts but haven’t heard back yet. In mid-May it was announced that he planned to meet with the Till family and with the Rev. Al Sharpton concerning the Lil Wayne issue; with some luck there will be a way for Pepsi to do good here. But the company shouldn’t stop trying to engage relevant cultural voices in its marketing practices – to do so would create an even worse kind of silence.