By Candice Choi
NEW YORK — PepsiCo is once again learning the risks of celebrity partnerships after an ad for Mountain Dew was criticized for portraying racial stereotypes and making light of violence toward women.
The soda and snack food company said it immediately pulled the 60-second spot after learning that people found it offensive. The ad was part of a series developed by African-American rapper Tyler, The Creator, and depicted a battered white woman on crutches being urged to identify a suspect out of a lineup of black men.
A goat character known as Felicia is included in the lineup and makes threatening comments to the woman, such as “Ya better not snitch on a playa” and “Keep ya mouth shut.”
The woman eventually screams “I can’t do this, no no no!” and runs away. The word “do” is in apparent reference to the soft drink’s “Dew It” slogan.
Mountain Dew, known for its neon color and high caffeine content, is generally marketed to younger men and sometimes attempts to have edgier ads. But the controversy over its latest spot illustrates the fine line that companies must walk when trying to be hip.
In fact, Mountain Dew also was criticized recently because of its endorsement deal with Lil Wayne, whose rap lyrics compared a rough sex act to the tortuous death of Emmett Till, a black teen who was murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Last month, Reebok also ended its relationship with Rick Ross after he rapped about giving a woman a drug to have his way with her.
In an article by the New York Times, Kimberly Wilson, a publicist for the Mamie Till Mobley Memorial Foundation, named for Emmett Till’s mother, said that the issue for the family was the lack of a timely response from Lil Wayne and the context in which Till’s name was used in the song. The Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been in touch with both executives of PepsiCo and the Till family, said he had scheduled a meeting with the two parties, which he will attend, in New York on Wednesday.
In a telephone interview Mr. Sharpton said he had also been in contact with Lil Wayne’s management. He described the issue as a “teaching moment” for both the brand and the artist.
“The fact is that a lot of these young artists do not understand these civil rights issues, do not understand history and what it is that people are offended by,” he said. “The corporations become insensitive because they are profit-driven and have no regard for what’s going on in our communities.”
Ms. Wilson said the foundation had received comments from people saying the family should, in fact, be “grateful to Lil Wayne for even saying his name.”
She added: “The one thing this issue definitely brought to light is that some people didn’t even know who Emmett Till was.”
Both the brand and the artist are to blame, Mr. Sharpton said. “The brand wants street cred, the artist gives them something that’s outrageous — and when the streets turn on them, the artist becomes expendable,” he said.
Laura Ries, president of Ries & Ries, a marketing firm based in Atlanta, said companies that want the “street cred” of a celebrity may end up losing control of the message they want to convey.
If PepsiCo had created an ad for Mountain Dew, for example, she said it might not have been considered edgy or cool. But by handing over control to a celebrity, she said the company ran the risk of having an ad that wasn’t appropriate.
PepsiCo Inc., based in Purchase, N.Y., said it understood how the ad could be offensive.
“We apologize for this video and take full responsibility,” the company said in an updated statement late Wednesday afternoon. “We have removed it from all Mountain Dew channels and Tyler is removing it from his channels as well.”
Jen Ryan, a spokeswoman for PepsiCo, said the company learned from its consumer relations team on Tuesday that people found the ad offensive. She declined to explain the approval process for the ad but said it was never meant to run on TV.
Tyler, the Creator’s raps have been criticized for being misogynistic and homophobic at times but he has also expressed support for the singer Frank Ocean, who revealed he was bisexual.
Management of Odd Future, the hip-hop collective led by Tyler, the Creator, issued a statement apologizing to anyone offended but said the ad was taken out of context. It noted the men in ad’s lineup are Tyler’s friends and Odd Future members.
The artist “absolutely never intended to spark a controversy about race,” the statement said. “It was simply an, again, admittedly absurd story that was never meant to be taken seriously.”
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