How Your Brand Can Deal With Viral Outrage

A recent Mountain Dew ad was called "arguably the most racist commercial in history" by one scholar. Controversy and PepsiCo's retraction quickly followed. Here, ideas on what the brand could have done differently.

As I wrote last month in this space, it’s almost impossible for a brand to avoid controversy these days. Someone is always looking to create instant viral outrage via Twitter and Facebook—where over a billion users look, waiting to pounce on the cause of the moment to prove their superior morality.

The latest outrage target? PepsiCo soft drink, Mountain Dew, which was said to have released "arguably the most racist commercial in history," according to Dr. Boyce Watkins, a black scholar and commentator.

Now, of course, when a commentator uses language like that, it commands that very viral outrage I just mentioned. Result? The ad quickly got the ax. Airing the most racist commercial in history isn’t a prize a corporation like PepsiCo actively seeks.

But since Dr. Watkins added the word "arguably" to his assessment, let’s go ahead and argue. The commercial in question, which has largely vanished from the Internet (otherwise I would happily link to it here) was actually the third in a series. In the previous installments, an angry goat that’s addicted to Mountain Dew (stay with me here) had attacked a waitress that did not bring the aforementioned animal enough of his favorite beverage.

In this third chapter of the saga, the waitress is after justice. She is bandaged from head to toe (in the over-the-top manner of someone who fell off a cliff in a Bugs Bunny cartoon—and no, I don’t believe that this commercial is also promoting violence against women). The police are asking her to identify her assailant in a police lineup and here’s where Dr. Watkins has his problem. The suspects are all black, except for the goat, who is dark gray. Oh, and the goat also speaks in "street lingo," advising the injured waitress, "Snitches get stitches" and other goatish threats.

Now, let’s go beyond whether you consider this commercial funny or not (it probably depends on how much amusement you garner from talking goats) and go straight to the heart of the matter. Dr. Watkins says the commercial traffics in racial stereotypes and that Mountain Dew was cynically trying to attract young black consumers.

Well, the fact is the commercial was conceived and produced by Tyler the Creator, a rapper/producer who is, yes, black. The non-goat suspects in the lineup are all his friends, who, according to Tyler, showed up for the shoot dressed the way they normally dress.

Here’s more from Tyler: "It’s a black guy making this, and if it’s so racist and feeding into stereotypes, why in the first commercial that goes along with it, is there a black male with his Asian wife? In the second commercial, it’s a black male with a professional job as a police officer listening to hardcore rock music—which supposedly the stereotype is that black people don’t listen to that....I wasn’t thinking, "Oh, let’s use all black [people]" or whatever. I wanted to use my friends...so what is this dude talking about?"

Even more interestingly, if you read the comments on the original post by Dr. Watkins, you’ll find a vast majority disagreeing with him—and calling him the racist for some of his comments about young black men. Could it be that this is more of a generational conflict than a racial one?

Obviously, Dr. Watkins was correct that Mountain Dew was out to appeal to a specific demographic. That’s why there have been so many white people in commercials over the years. Beyond that, Mountain Dew just tried to produce an edgy entertaining commercial series from the viewpoint of a young black artist who apparently was given a great deal of creative freedom.

Frankly, this commercial is not the most racist one in history. It wasn’t even the most racist ad of the week, in my opinion— this one was, because of a horribly inappropriate song choice. As a matter of fact, the Mountain Dew commercial may not even BE racist—except perhaps against goats.

Brands more than ever need to create cutting-edge advertising that pushes the boundaries and breaks the rules—that’s what grabs attention in an age where we’re bombarded with thousands of marketing messages on a daily basis. It’s hard to credit PepsiCo with courage for producing a talking animal commercial—but it’s easy to credit them with a little bit of cowardice for bending so fast to the will of one bombastic opinion.

Finally, let’s remember how Coca-Cola rejuvenated their Sprite brand back in the '90s: with hip-hop marketing. There wasn’t much of an outcry over marketing tactics like this at the time—in part because there wasn’t any Facebook to whip up an artificial controversy.

The biggest punishment for any brand is for a targeted demographic to reject its advertising. Perhaps companies and commentators alike should allow the marketplace to be the ultimate judge of whether a commercial is truly offensive or not.

[Image: Flickr user Kuba Bożanowski]