Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Pepsi Can of Worms

Pepsi's ad aired during the Super Bowl for its new, zero calorie beverage-- Pepsi Max-- has been one of the most talked-about spots of this year's annual clash of the commercial titans. Unfortunately for Pepsi, the "talk" has not been all positive. The ad has been accused of racism. The ad shows a series of instances in which a wife forcefully prevents her husband from eating unhealthily. In the last scene the husband fears scolding for being caught drinking a Pepsi Max, but his wife instead approves, pointing out that Pepsi Max has zero calories. Right when a return to marital bliss seems imminent, a young, attractive woman jogs by, makes eye contact with the husband, and elicits a wave and smile. The wife hurls her unopened Pepsi can at her husband but he ducks and the can instead pegs the runner in the head, knocking her over. The husband and wife look at each other and then wordlessly agree to flee the scene of the crime, leaving the runner groaning in pain.
One can imagine this storyboard, when brought to life with Pepsi's six or seven-digit marketing budget, proving comical to almost any demographic. Husbands and wives, or anyone who grew up watching their married parents interact, would find humor in the common conflict between this ad's couple. And everyone with a funny bone (with the exception, perhaps, of avid joggers) would laugh at the oblivious passerby unexpectedly beaned in the head by a flying object. Many of us would also relate to the embarrassment such a situation would cause and likely be struck as well with the instinct of running away. These are the core jokes in the spot-- the spousal conflict is the build-up and leads to a simple slapstick punchline.
The detail with which many viewers took offense was the race of the characters. The husband and wife were black and the runner was white. Offended parties claimed that the conflict was cashing in on racial stereotypes of the black wife as overbearing and controlling, and of black people in general as given to criminality and refusal to face the consequences of these crime. It is impossible to determine whether these stereotypes were intentionally exploited for comedic purposes, but it may be helpful to imagine ourselves in the shoes of the casting director and hypothesize as to his or her thought process. The storyboard itself provides ample humor. For what characteristics in our actors would we look in order to maximize the effect of these jokes? Personally, race is not a criteria that comes to my mind. A more relevant detail would be the physiques of the actors, because the conflict is over diet, and the object of the husband's illicit desire in the last scene is a more physically fit woman.
If there is any humor added by the fact that the couple is black, it is a highly marginal gain relative to the humor in the plot itself. I do not believe that Pepsi envisioned any such increase in humor from this detail, because it would only exist if such a stereotype was prominent, and if it were, that humor would not be worth the backlash that would inevitably result from a commercial that blatantly espouses racial stereotypes. I sincerely believe that the casting of this commercial was, in regards to the comedic message it attempted to convey, completely race-blind.

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