Recently, there have been a number of brands that had to apologize for campaigns that seemed to “take things too far,” and later offended somebody or a group. The mea culpa, usually issued by reps for celebrities fresh out of rehab, is now being offered by entire brands.
Most recently, PepsiCo apologized for an online campaign featuring a Dew-obsessed goat who tries to jive his way out of being identified by a white woman in a police lineup comprising exclusively African American men.
Critics have argued that the commercial portrays racial stereotypes and makes light of violence towards women. Dr. Boyce Watkins, an African American commentator and finance professor at Syracuse University, suggested, in fact, that the Dew commercial was one of the most racist spots he’d ever seen. The ad’s mastermind, Tyler, The Creator, also an African American, defended the storyline as so bizarre that it wasn’t meant to be taken seriously.
So is the ad really offensive? Maybe. Depends on how you look at it. That’s part of the beauty of an ad—viewer perceptions play a key role in how the message is unpacked and ultimately judged. Mountain Dew’s message may not appeal to Professor Watkins, but I doubt that he was the target audience Dew was going after.
We’ve seen this before, this revolving door of who’s offending whom. Kmart’s “I Shipped my Pants” ad featured its oddly familiar refrain to comic hilarity. It was such a hit (9.7 million views on YouTube in five days) that it even got the seal of approval from Matt Lauer on the Today Show. On the other hand, groups like One Million Moms were demanding apologies.
Even the music industry hasn’t been immune to such outrage. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s collaborative single “Accidental Racist” has been drawing jeers for its frank discussion of prejudice and the connotations of the Confederate flag. The resulting media hoopla gave a bad song (in my opinion) way more airplay than it deserved.
It takes so much to stand out nowadays; the limits aren’t being pushed unless someone is being offended. Brands can throw things out there and make an impact. And if someone gets offended, they can always pull it back and apologize. As long as the ad didn’t set out to intentionally harm or offend, all is forgiven. And in that brief shining moment, the public is reached and the marketing spend is justified, and the brand gets exactly what it was looking for—attention. No such thing as bad publicity!
There’s a fine line between pushing the envelope and pushing buttons. But as long as the benefits outweigh the negatives, and the majority of the public is in on the joke, there’s no reason to think this won’t continue.