By Aisha Harris
Mountain Dew recently released three new ads featuring a crazed goat voiced by rapper Tyler, the Creator, who was also the mastermind behind the commercials. The goat is seen attacking a waitress after she gives him the soda, fleeing a cop after getting caught with a car trunk full of the soda, and then threatening that waitress from behind the window of a criminal lineup after his arrest. That final ad has now been pulled by the beverage company amidst howls that it is racist and misogynistic. And those howls were right. What happened?
In the ad, the waitress, covered in bandages and hobbling on crutches, is asked by the detective to identify her assailant from a lineup of several black “thugs” and the goat. “You shoulda gave me some mo’,” he sleazily whispers to her, supposedly in reference to the soda. “Keep yo’ mouth shut,” he continues as she screams, frightened. “I’mma get outta here and I’mma do you up.” Such misguided attempts to make fun out of violence against women really have no place in commercials, as should be entirely obvious. What’s more, the ad reinforces racist stereotypes about black male aggression. Tyler’s manager, in a statement defending the rapper’s intentions, refers to his client as someone who “grew up on Dave Chappelle.” So did I. But Chappelle used a half-hour show and occasional hour-long comedy specials to get his (insightful, sometimes controversial) points across. Not 60-second TV spots pushing soda.
If you’re familiar with Tyler, the Creator, the face and leader of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, you know that shock and offense are the tools of his trade. Known for his violent lyrics (“You’ll see the meaning of stalking/ when I pop out the dark to find you/ And that new dude that you’re seeing with an attitude/ Then proceed to fuck up your evening”), the rapper is committed to crossing boundaries of taste and decency. “I’m not homophobic,” he once said of his music, “I just think ‘faggot’ hits and hurts people.” The rapper confounds critics, who have debated whether he’s a smart, intuitive artist, or a vacuous provocateur. I tend to the latter opinion. We can debate that. It’s a good argument for critics to have. And Tyler the Creator can create the music and “art” he wants to create. We don’t have to like it.
But when a corporation like PepsiCo—whose ad-makers were surely aware of Tyler’s music beforehand—decide to exploit that button-pushing for their own money-making ends, they deserve to be called out for it. Tyler tweeted in March: “They let my stupid ideas come to life, thanks Dew!” And they are indeed pretty stupid ideas. Everything in the ad is left on the surface, unexamined. The frightened, beaten white woman. The goat, coded as black, due to the “gangsta” vernacular it employs.
Perhaps PepsiCo were as ignorant as the people behind Ashton Kutcher’s Popchips ad, in which, for reasons still unknown, the actor donned brownface and a strained Indian accent. Ignorance is the go-to excuse companies employ when called out for their foolishness. And maybe they assumed that because Tyler himself is black, the ad itself wouldn’t be deemed racially offensive. (If so, that was a terrible and wrongheaded assumption to make.) What seems more likely is that they knew what they were in for and wanted to spark some controversy—the better to sell their soda.
Perhaps PepsiCo accomplished that. The other two commercials that are meant to precede the pulled ad are still in rotation. And those stories put the final ad into better context—but they don’t redeem it. Hopefully, other companies will think twice before giving birth to any more of Tyler’s empty ideas.
Update, May 2, 2013: This post originally included video of the three ads for Mountain Dew by Tyler the Creator. PepsiCo has had them removed.