Pepsi and the Line between Stupid and Clever

by Bob Schwartz

Mountain Dew
You’ve got to love the movie Spinal Tap. Below the surface of this hilarious fake “rockumentary”, beyond the wisdom of lines such as “It’s such a fine line between stupid and, uh…clever”, is a genuine commentary about what happens when popular art meets commerce.

When the band tries to revive its fading fortunes with an album called “Smell the Glove”, the record label rejects a cover photo of a woman on a leash being forced to, well, smell a glove. Instead, the album is released with a plain black cover.

Pepsi has long looked at its Mountain Dew brand as the edgiest of its beverages, with potential youth appeal. That would explain why it hired a 22-year-old hip-hop artist and music producer known as Tyler the Creator to create a series of videos for the brand. The storyline is that a goat named Felicia, voiced by Tyler, is obsessed with Dew and angry at its being in short supply. The goat brutally attacks a white waitress. In the third video, the injured waitress is at a police station, looking over a lineup of four black men and the goat. The goat threatens her, among other things reminding her that “snitches get stitches.” She is scared off and will not “dew” it.

After complaints about its being the most racist commercial ever, PepsiCo removed it from the web (you may still be able to see it here).

PepsiCo said, “We understand how this video could be perceived by some as offensive, and we apologize to those who were offended. We have removed the video from all Mountain Dew channels and have been informed that Tyler is removing it from his channels as well.”

Tyler’s manager said:

“It was never Tyler’s intention to offend, however offense is personal and valid to anyone who is offended. Out of respect to those that were offended, the ad was taken down. For those who know and respect Tyler, he is known for pushing boundaries and challenging stereotypes thr[ough] humor. This is someone who grew up on David Chappelle. This situation is layered with context and is a discussion that Tyler would love to address in the right forum as he does have a point of view. As someone who hasn’t had the experience of being discriminated against I choose to respect the opinion of those who have. What I can speak to is Tyler, who represents much more than the current narrative this story suggests.”

“Contrary to what many may discern from this, Tyler is the embodiment of not judging others, his delivery may not be for everyone (which is true for anyone who pushes boundaries) but his voice is nonetheless important to the conversation since his demographic understands what he ultimately stands for and sees the irony of it all. Context may or not help those who are offended and I wholly respect that, but for those who are interested, I can offer the following and leave the rest to Tyler.

“1. This spot was part of an overall admittedly absurd storyline about a crazy goat who becomes obsessed with Mountain Dew, 2. The lady in front of the line-up is the waitress from the first spot, 3. The line-up consists of Tyler’s friends and Odd Future members who were available that day. (L-Boy, Left Brain, Garret from Trash Talk and Errol) 4. He absolutely never intended to spark a controversy about race. It was simply an…admittedly absurd story that was never meant to be taken seriously. Again, we apologize if this was taken out of context and would never trivialize racism, especially now in America where voting and civil rights are being challenged at the highest level. I can however stand firmly by someone I have believed in since we met, only because I know him and I know all of this was never his intent.”

It’s not clear who this “David Chappelle” that the manager mentions is, but Dave Chappelle is one of the funniest, strangest, most boundary-pushing comic artists of recent times. Chappelle created one great piece after another, including a bit where a blind black man is a vicious anti-black racist, because he thinks he is white. That’s brilliant, so let’s start with the fact that Tyler has a long way to go.

Artists are supposed to do whatever their vision tells them, and we shouldn’t be stopping them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and sometimes the art is behind or ahead of its times.

But that doesn’t mean that those who pay for the work have to go along with everything that artists conceive and produce. There is actually a bit of cleverness here, but it is plagued by so much troubling text, context and subtext that it could not possibly have passed any feasibility test that any mainstream corporate advertiser might apply.

One thing that makes this even a little more troubling is PepsiCo’s quasi-apology. We are supposed to have gotten used to cleverly crafted statements that are meant to sound like apologies but aren’t quite. That is now the norm. We are not that stupid. “We apologize to those who were offended” is a defensive or even condescending posture: if you are among those who don’t get it (or as Tyler’s manager says, not part of “his demographic [that] understands what he ultimately stands for and sees the irony of it all”), then we are sorry. Mass media have mass audiences, and if you want to put something out there that is likely to cause trouble but you believe will help you, either stand behind it or don’t. Apologize or don’t. It may turn out to be commercially smart or stupid. But at least you’re brave.