Archives of Commentary / Opinion

Have a Coke and a Smile

August 30, 2002

The CEO of the Coca-Cola Corporation should be very happy this week. The company should be sending cards, flowers, and a huge thank you to Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, The Radio Factor and Fox News.

On Tuesday's edition of the Radio Factor, O'Reilly took Pepsi-Cola to task for its hiring of the rap star Ludacris to become the company's newest pitch man. His spots were to air during the MTV video music awards on the Music Television network. Pepsi-Cola had no problem with hiring a foul mouthed rap star to sell its soda; a company representative explained that even though they knew what type of music Ludacris recorded, they saw no conflict of interest in marketing the soft drink giant to children and teens.

O'Reilly blasted Pepsi for its lack of common sense, and promptly started a firestorm of responses by viewers and listeners of his shows. "I'm calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse, and does all the things that hurt particularly the poor in our society," O'Reilly said. Thousands of emails and phone calls poured into Pepsi in protest of their choice of spokesman.

To clarify, the rapper Ludacris is a typical example of the urban music scene. Rap music is said to reflect inner-city black culture. Justification of the lyrics and message this form of expression is afforded is often attributed to the struggles of the young, black men residing in these urban environments. But how can anyone, including the record companies and especially Pepsi, justify the violence, sexually-explicit lyrics, and blatant carnal message? How can the artists themselves justify it? And how can Pepsi, or any other American corporation, decide to market its product by using a celebrity of questionable character to advertise to children?

The matter isn't a question of free speech, taste in music preferences, or even one of character. It's a matter of responsibility. Marketing soda pop to kids using a thug rap singer is irresponsible and immoral. Whatever happened to common sense? Pepsi's decision to acquire Ludacris as a spokesman was based on the much heralded "Q rating." The Q rating is a poll indicating public opinion used by advertisers to gauge celebrity star power. What this rating system leaves to question is the acceptability of said star in an advertising campaign. Everyone knows who Charles Manson is, but do we want him selling soda to our kids?

On the Factor, both radio and television versions, Bill O'Reilly expressed what thousands of other Americans felt - holding companies like Pepsi responsible for their message. By using pop culture icons such as actors or musicians to sell a product associates the celebrity not only with the product but with the corporate image. This month's big name could be next month's scandal. Pepsi should know this well. In 1989, the company signed pop star Madonna to an advertising deal worth millions. Shortly after, the music video for her song entitled "Like a Prayer" was released. It portrayed a young woman (Madonna) with stigmata wounds on her hands and burning crosses. The immediate backlash prompted Pepsi to fire the singer as a spokesperson.

Bill O'Reilly, threatening a boycott of Pepsi along with thousands of angry responses from potential customers, reported the corporation decided on Wednesday to drop its superstar spokesman. Pepsi issued a statement which reads in part: "We've heard from a number of people that were uncomfortable with our association with this artist. We've decided to discontinue our ad campaign and we're sorry that we've offended anyone."

Uncomfortable? You could say that. In the age of rampant corporate corruption, from Enron to Adelphia, Pepsi would do well to remember that Americans are watching the corporate world more closely than ever. To promote a product using a controversial spokesperson is flirting with disaster. It makes us uncomfortable to be forced to counteract a message by a soft drink company who hires a thug to advertise its product to our children. Pepsi better hope that Britney Spears doesn't fall soon, no matter what her Q rating might be.


© 2002 Lori Cutshall

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