Mountain Dew, Courting Too Much Controversy

It’s been a tough May so far for Mountain Dew.

First, it released a video by rapper Tyler, The Creator that was described as “arguably the most racist commercial in history,” and then this week the company found itself in yet another storm of controversy, prompting it to cancel a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with rapper Lil Wayne over his profane and controversial lyrics.

Tyler, The Creator (Tyler Okonma), the rapper, producer, and de facto figurehead of the west coast collective known as Odd Future, perhaps chose his stage name to avoid any misunderstandings — he does not care if he’s seen as blasphemous. In fact, he prefers that you think so.

And it’s just this kind of attitude that attracts extreme sports/lifestyle brands such as Mountain Dew, who probably had some idea what was awaiting them upon linking up with Tyler. The result was a distaster.

Members of Odd Future have used their microphone skills, a LOLCAT-esque DIY aesthetic, and an expertise in angering parents to pack concert halls, sell a modest number of records, and more recently launch “Loiter Squad,” a show on Cartoon Network’s AdultSwim. All along, they have managed to hold onto the ears of the target demographics that brands love to court, from whom they continue to inspire raucous crowds and truancy.

What brand wouldn’t dream of a fraction of this kind of loyalty from their audience?

When Mountain Dew signed a deal with Tyler to create multiple TV spots for the company, it seemed like natural bedfellows. A harmonious affair, though, that may have ended with Tyler’s third ad spot, which featured a hobbled white woman on crutches trying to finger a culprit out of a lineup comprised entirely of young black men (and the recurring character of Tyler’s Mountain Dew campaign, a talking goat named Felicia).

Mountain Dew’s brand is extreme sports, not extremely clumsy symbolism, and as Felicia the goat warns the battered woman, “Snitches get stitches, fool,” following that gem up with threats to “Dew her up,” one wonders what parent company PepsiCo expected to happen.

They probably did not expect for the pull quote, “arguably the most racist commercial in history,” from social commentator Dr. Boyce Watkins’ personal blog. This reaction was only one of many that prompted the ad to be pulled both off airwaves and social media platforms, with PepsiCo stating, “We apologize for this video and take full responsibility. We have removed it from all Mountain Dew channels and Tyler is removing it from his channels as well.”

The company even earned some good press for buying a promoted tweet to publicize its mea culpa. And the top of its website leads with a giant “We Apologize” note.

Following these comments, PepsiCo hasn’t put an executive on a public chopping block, and Tyler has declared they loved the idea when it pitched it. Which begs the question of how sincere this apology is. Audiences will probably trust artists more than brands, so PepsiCo cutting their losses must also include a loss of credibility with Tyler’s base.

One wonders what parent company PepsiCo expected to happen.

This incident came at especially bad time for PepsiCo./Mountain Dew, following the soda company ending a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with rapper Lil Wayne over profane lyrics referencing Emmett Till. Till was the African-American teenager tortured and murdered in 1955 for supposedly whistling at a white woman. While PepsiCo was not involved with the release of that song, the controversy of their association with Wayne put the company in a position where they need to keep a long distance between their brand and racial insensitivity.

From this controversy, Tyler’s brand can probably only grow stronger, continuing the trend-line he is used to. As reported by Billboard magazine: “Early at a sold-out show in Brooklyn in late March … a line of Tyler super-fans …. wrapped around the block. Supreme caps, Vans sneakers and official, Odd Future-branded socks, hoodies and beanies collectively distinguished the kids in the crowd.”

Mountain Dew might have thought twice about the risk and reward from a deal with someone just as focused on branding as it is.

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