Barbara Lippert’s Critique

Party Pooper

It’s the Pepsi de-generation, or is it?

Lest you missed the flap (which ended with Pepsi pulling its spot featuring rapper Luda cris), here’s what happened: Two weeks ago, Fox’s Bill O’Reilly needed a hot-button topic to wrap his jaws around on a quiet news night. The upcoming MTV Video Music Awards would provide great fodder—those cwazy kids! These days, of course, the music business is in a slump, but also so mixed up and schizophrenic that Ozzy Os bourne is our new Ward Cleaver and the chirpsters on American Idol enthralled the country with a Burt Bacharach med ley. No material there, save for congratulating poor Michael Jackson on the convincing new bit of buildup in the nose area. O’Reilly went for the raunchy-lyrics angle—a topic that got Tipper Gore some mileage years back—and struck at the Ludacris spot, scheduled to air during the MTV show.

In the attack vein, I myself would have gone after Pepsi endorser Britney Spears and the hyper-sexualizing effect she has on young children—and little did I know she’d show up in total leather micro-bondage that night.

There could be no Fox-hatched argument with the spot itself, called “Party.” Created and produced by multicultural shop UniWorld, it’s goofy and good-natured, and makes Ludacris seem downright innocu-is. Two dweeby guys in an old Ford try to find a hot party in the middle of nowhere. They pull up to an old barn, see no action and decide to leave. “Let’s bounce,” one says. “Nothin’ going on.”

Meanwhile, the cars are parked on the other side of the barn, and inside the party is in full swing, filled with fabulous women in newsboy caps and glittery outfits, and Ludacris onstage, rapping. It’s nicely done—the party doesn’t seem fake, and Ludacris, who’s never identified, has a compelling presence. I’m not quite sure what the lyrics are, but from what I could decipher, there wasn’t an F word, nor an N word, nor an S word to be heard. Only a howling coyote. (I guess a bigger question for Pepsi is, If you defang the guy in a commercial, do his fans still respond?)

But that didn’t matter. O’Reilly read from Ludacris’ actual lyrics—and some of them are appalling. To wit, from “Get the Fuck Back”: “Bitch, your whole town’s on my nut sack/Cuff that/Grab the peels, ’cause we robbin’ tonight/Beat the shit outta security/We startin’ a fight.” One would guess that Pepsi did due diligence and figured Ludacris’ Q rating among teens (both African American and white) trumped any questions over the content of his songs. It’s not like the guy committed a Tyson-style crime—these are the lyrics that made him millions.

“So here’s the deal, Pepsi,” O’Reilly said on his show, which resulted in a number of calls to Pepsi. “You want to cultivate Ludacris? Fine. I’m drinking Coke.”

This push-pull of contemporary culture is a huge problem for marketers who want to stay on top by latching on to what’s hot. Of course, rap and hip-hop itself is changing. Born more than 20 years ago as a form of protest against life in the inner city, some of it later degenerated into gangsta culture, with lyrics full of references to glocks, weed and ho’s. Now it’s all about “the Benjamins,” a caricature of conspicuous consumption. Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvoisier Part II” has spurred a double-digit increase in sales of the liquor. Rap is now so successful in promoting high-end brand names that, ironically, some record companies are reportedly planning to charge brands for song and video placement.

Pepsi, meanwhile, has a history of yanking controversial spots. There was that one in 1989 with Madonna and “Like a Prayer,” a sweet song, telling a little girl to make a wish. But it debuted at the same time as her video, featuring burning crosses, and amid consumer protests got immediately dumped.

The reaction process seems a big waste on Pepsi’s part. Everybody’s trying to sell something, including Bill O’Reilly. You either decide to buy talent, and all its possible shock value, or you don’t. Meanwhile, I’ll prepare for many more Bach arach medleys.