Trying to Be Hip and Edgy, Ads Become Offensive

Stuart Elliott and Tanzina Vega, New York Times, May 10, 2013

Madison Avenue is learning a painful lesson: cutting edge advertising can slice both ways.

Some of the biggest names in marketing, including Ford Motor, General Motors, Hyundai Motor, Reebok and PepsiCo, have been forced recently to apologize to consumers who mounted loud public outcries against ads that hinged on subjects like race, rape and suicide.

PepsiCo found itself meeting this week with the Rev. Al Sharpton and the family of Emmet Till—the teenager whose death in Mississippi in 1955 helped energize the civil rights movement—to try to quell multiple controversies involving its Mountain Dew brand.

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Advertising experts offer a long list of reasons for the increasing frequency of such incidents, but the primary reason they keep happening, they say, is the growing anxiety on Madison Avenue to create ads that will be noticed and break through the clutter.

“It’s the pressure to create ‘viral’ advertising, the urge to get more views online, that leads people to push the envelope,” said Tor Myhren, president and chief creative officer at Grey New York. He added that another contributing factor was the focus on younger consumers. “There’s so much ‘How do we speak to millennials?’ in meetings,” he said.

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Celebrities, particularly rappers and actors with images as rebellious rule-breakers and risk-takers, often appeal to marketers’ youthful target audiences and have huge followings on social media. That is what drew Mountain Dew to Lil Wayne, the rapper who signed a multimillion-dollar celebrity endorsement deal with the soft-drink brand last year. The brand severed ties with the artist last week, however, after the Till family took issue with an ad that referred to Till with vulgar lyrics sung by Lil Wayne on a remix of “Karate Chop,” by the rapper Future.

As part of its efforts, the family also brought attention to an offensive Mountain Dew video ad created by the hip-hop producer and rap artist known as Tyler, the Creator. The spot featured a battered white waitress trying to identify her assailant from a lineup that included African-American men and a goat. Mountain Dew dropped the ad on May 1.

On Wednesday at the PepsiCo offices in White Plains, company executives, including Frank Cooper, the chief marketing officer for global consumer engagement for Pepsi, and Till family members gathered for a private meeting with Mr. Sharpton.

In a telephone interview, Mr. Sharpton described the meeting as good and its tone as respectful. He said, “The family explained the pain that they have gone through since the killing” and Pepsi executives “repeated their apology and said they would have nothing to do with Wayne and his tour.”

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In April, Reebok dropped the rapper Rick Ross after the brand came under pressure for a lyric he performed in the Rocko song “U.O.E.N.O.” that referred to drugging a woman and having sex with her without her knowledge.

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General Motors scuttled an ad that promoted its Chevrolet Trax, a small sport utility vehicle that is sold in countries including Canada. The ad, set in the 1930s, featured a modern remix of a song from that era that included references to Chinese people using phrases like “ching ching, chop suey.”

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Mr. Sharpton said he intended to lead a broader conversation with the executives of PepsiCo, other major corporations and the music industry, civil rights groups and the families of Mr. Till and Trayvon Martin. He said he would contact executives at Coca-Cola, Walmart, the record label Cash Money and the rap mogul Russell Simmons, among others, and expected to hold a meeting within the next 30 days.

“I don’t want to shut down black artists, but how do we protect ourselves against depravation and misogyny?” Mr. Sharpton said. “The artists do not understand that you may have a younger following, but you’re dealing with corporate responsibility from older stockholders who are just not going to tolerate that.”

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