I started last week by being traumatized by an ad released by Mountain Dew, which I referred to as “the most racist ad in history.” The commercial featured a battered white woman being intimidated by a police lineup full of black men, along with a demonic negro goat making a series of ebonic threats. As the goat told the woman that he was going to “dew her up” (sounds like s-xual assault to me),I remember sitting at my computer with my eyes crinkled and my bottom lip hitting my keyboard. I couldn’t believe the company had released this ad to the public.
That’s when I wrote an article that apparently got the attention of White America. To be truthful, I write most of my content for the 600,000 people who follow Your Black World, and I don’t care much about what anyone else is thinking. Crossover appeal can be highly overrated, and often leads one to become to a watered down version of who they once were. The man who initially stood firm for black America is suddenly bought off to go campaigning for gay rights and immigration reform, while black families continue to be surrounded by joblessness, a lack of education, poverty, violence, workplace inequality and the prison industrial complex. Honestly, I’ve accepted the fact that standing up against racism is going to create a few enemies, so I am comfortable with white America not liking me very much.
A conversation I had the other day with the rapper Rhymefest out of Chicago reminded me of just how silly the Mountain Dew situation actually was, and how silly it ended. It all starts off with my writing an article about the company’s racist ad and their decision to sign Lil Wayne. Then it proceeds to the company removing the racist ad, after which, they choose to dump Lil Wayne. The finale is that Mountain Dew/Pepsico executives can sleep better at night firmly believing that they’ve fully alleviated “the negro problem” in their company (similar to how Adidas responded when Rev. Jesse Jackson and I spoke out about their “brilliant” shackle on the ankle sneakers that no one seemed to connect to slavery).
Not so fast.
Sometimes when we address the symptoms of a problem, we believe that we’ve actually addressed the problem. I can say, as a person who has taught in business schools for 20 years, that the decision to release one of the most disrespectful pieces of corporate trash in history was indicative of deeper problems with the Mountain Dew/Pepsico corporate infrastructure. Their shallow response is even more indicative of their way of thinking.
The fact that this ad was able to ease itself through the internal review process without so much as raising an eyebrow shows that there are few, if any, individuals in the company who are either capable of, or empowered to, express meaningful cross-cultural sensitivity. If my grandmother knew that the ad was unacceptable after the first ten seconds of seeing it, why weren’t all those Ivy League MBAs able to pick up on the same thing? Possibly because their Ivy League MBAs led them to believe that black people don’t really matter (Lil Wayne thought the same thing).
Here is my advice for Pepsico as they move forward, so as to avert another multi-million dollar tragedy. I tried to reach out and give them this advice in person, but a series of non-returned phone calls reminded me again that perhaps they see me as the enemy. But then again, it might be the case that seeing your critic as an enemy means that you’re still in denial, like the alcoholic who gets angry at a family intervention.
But either way, here are some quick thoughts on Pepsico:
1) Pepsico MUST Adjust its corporate culture: The fact that Pepsico was sued for millions for racially-discriminating against its employees is a firm reminder that there is a problem within the company. Releasing this ridiculous ad shortly thereafter clearly implies that the issue has not been resolved. A lack of diversity in senior management could be a problem, or there could be no diversity in perspective. Black faces don’t save you if they either a) do not have an authentic and intelligent voice, or b) are afraid to use that voice. Nearly every black person I know saw the ad and immediately wanted to vomit, so I’m sure someone within the firm felt the same way.
2) The company must do more authentic outreach to the black community: With all the millions that Pepsico/Mountain Dew were willing to give Lil Wayne to buy more sizzurp, I am hopeful that they can use a fraction of those dollars to pay for scholarships, community centers and educational opportunities for impoverished communities. Putting money into the pocket of a hip-hop artist, the Tom Joyner Morning Show or your favorite civil rights leader is not the same as showing support for the African American community. If you’re going to use us for our consumer dollars, you should be investing in the people, not in artificial figureheads.
3) Replace Lil Wayne and Tyler the Creator with artists who are doing positive things: I felt bad that Tyler the Creator lost his contract, since he is not nearly as toxic as the worst artists out there. I can’t say I felt the same way about Lil Wayne, who refused to even apologize for his Emmett Till flap until it was too late. But I hope that as Pepsico decides how to replace the crater in its marketing plan created by Lil Wayne’s removal, they will look at some of the stronger black artists out there who don’t always get deals with companies like PepsiCo. Names like Common, Immortal Technique, Jasiri X or Vigalantee come to mind, and even my friend Rhymefest. These artists should, in turn, be asked to use their platforms to benefit the broader community, so that everyone in black America has a full incentive to “Do the Dew.”
Until corporations learn to implement serious and substantive change to their strategies, tragedies like this are going to continue to happen. Pepsico has learned time and time again, that racism doesn’t pay. But for some reason, they keep going right back to the well of corporate irresponsibility, driven by an insidious addiction to structural racism that plagues the very fabric of the American socioeconomic infrastructure. Like any addiction, withdrawal is not a comfortable process, and we all know that to overcome that which ails us, we can’t always look for the easy way out.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is the author of the lecture series called Commercialized Hip-Hop, the Gospel of Self-Destruction. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.