The Mountain Dew goat ad.  It’s offensive on a lot of levels:

  • Lineup of suspects is all black men.  Except for a goat?
  • The badly battered victim (black-eyed and on crutches!) is a white woman.  This, lazily, plays on racists fears of black men “defiling” white women.  Ugh.  And the goat doesn’t’ help when its voiceover says something about, “You should’ve given me more.”  Again, ugh.

What’s actually worse is this: It didn’t have to happen.

So much has been in the news lately about violence against women, girls and children. Steubenville.  Sexual assaults at Occupy events and during the Arab Spring.  Increasing attention on sex slavery & traffickingIndia.  In fact the news that a 4-year-old Indian girl died after being kidnapped, tortured and raped made the front page of the New York Times just a day or so ago.

What this means is that there’s a new communications context.  Remember: Culture is a medium.   As culture changes, we have to be keenly aware of how that evolution impacts the ways that brand communications are understood.  It’s not been cool to make jokes about battered women for a while now, and this is what shows failure on the part of the Mountain Dew team to grasp how the frame has shifted.

You can’t blame any of this on Odd Future’s shock rapper Tyler, The Creator.  They should’ve known what they were getting into when they him to do the spot for them.  Take a listen to his 2011 album Goblin if you don’t believe me.  In fact, his “edginess” is the reason Mountain Dew, in its attempt to stay connected to the youth demo, got in business with him.  But it’s clear something in the process was poorly managed.

How can this be an opportunity for learning on the part of brands? How can we make sure that, in 2013, our brands aren’t still  making the same mistakes that today seem so avoidable?  Here are my suggested next steps:

1. Hire someone who listens to culture. 

I don’t just mean somebody who’s connected to all the young, up-and-coming musicians, actors and athletes.  I mean somebody who takes the broad view of culture and who understands how the shifts can impact your business.  Maybe the CMO needs to hire a chief culture officer, not just a branded entertainment agency.  There are a whole host of people out there who could help.  In addition to myself, there are folks like Y&R’s Rick Liebling, cultural anthropologist extraordinaire Grant McCracken, Deft Collective’s Gitamba Saila-Ngita, Big Spaceship’s Amber Horsburgh, KILN’s Indy Neogy, brand listener Peter Spear, Terry Young of Sparks & Honey.  And this is, seriously, just the tip of the iceberg: There are so many people out here who are really good at culture.  There’s no reason for brands to keep making these same stupid mistakes.

2. Empower that person (or team) to call bullshit.  Really.

I wonder: Was there any discussion within Mountain Dew and Pepsi as to why it might not be appropriate for the brand to endorse this type of speech?  So, even if there was someone in the room that says, hey, the cultural frame has shifted and consumers definitely won’t appreciate jokes about violence against women!  Would anyone have listened?  Could they have forced a new direction on the creative?  Support for the culture role has to come from the top, and everyone needs to understand that the chief culture person is looking out for the best interests of the brand as it exists in contemporary culture.

3. Stop being so grateful to be in business with talent. 

I’m really talking to all brands here when I ask: Aren’t you guys over this yet?  You have a checkbook.  More importantly, you have a distribution platform bigger than almost any artist.  Stop acting as if talent’s doing you a favor.  This is a business arrangement.  Man (or woman) the fuck up and protect your brand.

4. Don’t be afraid to impose creative constraints on talent. 

A follow on to the previous point. The conversation needs to go something like this: “Yeah, you’re a rapper with over a million followers on Twitter and a considerable cultural impact.  But we’re a global, billion dollar brand and we account for 20% of our parent company’s bottom line.  So there will be some limits.”  The work on the part of brands is to channel the raw energy from outside thinkers in ways that help, not harm, their brand.  Perhaps brand managers need a new set of skills to more effectively deal with talent.

5. Don’t be afraid to walk. 

If the creative can’t abide by your rules, grow a pair and move on.  A brand like Mountain Dew can certainly afford to pay Tyler for his time.  A kill fee, as it were.  It doesn’t mean you have to use what he comes up with. Especially if it’s going to be detrimental to your brand.  But, then again, you need to someone in place to tell you that, per #1.

Hat tip to Colorlines for their recap of the brouhaha and for having the video, which apparently has been pulled from many outlets.

Posted by Rob Fields

  • Key to me is that something said in the voice of “Tyler, The Creator” may be a provocative piece of art. It takes on a completely different meaning when those words are spoken by “Mountain Dew” – a brand which has had an image (rightly or wrongly) as being associated with a non-black demographic.