Pepsi’s Ludacris Position

The Ludacris commercial is on the air. No, wait, it’s off. Russell Simmons’ boycott of Pepsi is on. No, it’s off. Or is it?

If we thought we’d see fewer twists and turns in Pepsi’s marketing after Britney was told to take her midriff and run, we were wrong. Getting people on both sides of an issue to threaten you with boycotts is no mean feat.

It began when Bill O’Reilly of Fox News lambasted Pepsi last fall for featuring rapper Ludacris in a commercial to air during the MTV Awards. Quoting from the 25-year-old’s lyrics and calling him “a dumb idiot who got lucky and exploits the system,” O’Reilly urged “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.” The ad featured no profanity and no offensive lyrics, just kids dancing at a Ludacris show in a barn. But Pepsi killed it, citing consumer complaints.

Things quieted down until Pepsi hired Ozzy Osbourne for a Super Bowl spot. Simmons, who founded Def Jam, the record label that signed Ludacris, cried hypocrisy and said Pepsi was showing “cultural disrespect.” How, he asked, could the company drop Ludacris over complaints about offensive lyrics and then pick up a potty-mouth like Ozzy?

Early last week, Pepsi appeared to reach an agreement with Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (HSAN) that would end the dispute. By Thursday, that deal was on the verge of collapse, but Simmons scheduled a press conference, and that was apparently enough to get the agreement in writing from Pepsi president Dawn Hudson.

The details were still being worked out last week, but an HSAN representative said Pepsi will give $1 million a year for three years to organizations and charities that help at-risk urban youth. A steering committee being created by Pepsi, HSAN and the Ludacris Foundation (a nonprofit youth organization headed by Ludacris’ mother) will determine which charities get the money. A public apology from Pepsi to the rapper and the hip-hop community seems unlikely. And the final demand originally floated by HSAN—that the Ludacris ad be put back on the air—was evidently quashed by Ludacris himself. It seems he just wants to put the whole thing behind him.

Don’t we all. Pepsi most of all. But having caved in not once but twice, where exactly does the soft-drink maker stand? A company rep calls the whole episode “unfortunate” and says, “We learned from it, and we moved on.” But what did it learn? Pepsi’s behavior just leaves it vulnerable to more attacks of this kind in the future.

The company did its research and made a calculated decision in signing Ludacris up for the job. And it was a smart one. Ludacris has yet to become a mainstream commodity like the Osbournes, but his last release, Word of Mouf, has gone multiplatinum, and he has two films on the way—the animated Lil’ Pimp and The Fast and the Furious II. Pepsi could be along for the ride. Instead, it buckled under to a social agenda disguised as an economic threat.

It should have stuck with Ludacris and taken the heat. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of parents—not the artist, and certainly not Pepsi —to see that kids don’t use Ludacris’ lyrics as a road map for their own lives.

The point of embracing a rapper like Ludacris is to show the kids that you’re “with it.” To abandon him because Bill O’Reilly says he’ll switch to Coke does the opposite. And if the decision was made to avoid a boycott, Pepsi still lost $3 million for its trouble. But at least that money’s going to charity.

Looking forward, Pepsi will no doubt play it safe for a while, in the form of Beyoncé Knowles. She’s mellower (and prettier) than Ludacris. Hopefully she’ll stay that way.