The Risks of Cool: How Mountain Dew's Hip-Hop Ads Misfired

The Creator Photograph by Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

This month is not a good time to do the Dew. In two recent scandals involving its hip-hop spokespeople, Mountain Dew pulled a violent, misogynistic commercial directed and starred in by artist Tyler, the Creator, and then broke ties with rapper Lil Wayne. The latter had managed to offend both women and the Civil Rights community with a new remix of a song that included a reference to beating up a woman “like Emmett Till,” the 14-year-old African-American boy who was murdered by white men in Mississippi in 1955.

“When you connect a brand with a celebrity, you make a calculated risk assessment,” says Con Williamson, chief creative officer at the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi NY. In other words, PepsiCo knew what it was getting into when it built its multimillion dollar advertising campaign around Lil Wayne. Last year, Mountain Dew announced a campaign aimed at young, urban kids in such cities as Los Angeles and New York. The soft drink has a history of promoting itself through indie and hip-hop music, and Lil Wayne was a natural fit—an edgy artist and ex-con with millions of fans. He would do things like show up at South by Southwest, rap a little, and then drink Mountain Dew and try to convince people to do the same. Lil Wayne was the big act. For a smaller, more niche campaign, the drink maker hired Tyler, the Creator to create a series of bizarre ads off his character Felicia the Goat.

Tyler is that rare breed of genre-spanning artist whose Odd Future hip-hop collective has done everything from start its own record label to star in a sketchy comedy show on Adult Swim. The goofy, puppy-dog-faced rapper alternates between absurdism (he makes a lot of jokes about cheese) and some really creepy stuff. He once titled a love song after the acronym for “I F—— Hate You.” The Felicia the Goat character, around which Mountain Dew’s entire commercial is based, comes from a line in a song called Trashwang. In the song, Tyler threatens to kill someone’s grandmother and then changes his mind and muses that he might turn into “a goat named Felicia” instead. Funny? Yes. Unsettling? Definitely. Good for a national beverage brand? Your guess is as good as ours.

Tyler provides further evidence that media audiences have splintered into smaller and smaller subgroups. Just like TV networks, advertisers have learned to cater their ads to fit each new demographic. The ad you might run on CBS, whose median prime-time viewer is now 58 years-old, is different from the one you’d place on YouTube. “With smaller interest groups, you can now pick certain celebrities relevant to that market,” says Saatchi & Saatchi’s Williamson. Tyler recently launched his own creative agency called Camp Flog Gnaw with William Morris Endeavor to create attention-grabbing ads for companies hoping to reach younger viewers.

“The mistake people make is when they think no one else but their targeted group will see it,” says Williamson. “It doesn’t work that way. You can create the most obscure ad and put it online somewhere and then wake up the next morning and Good Morning America is talking about it.”

Tyler’s series of commercials for Mountain Dew is indeed weird. “I thought it would be funny if a goat, like, yelled and wanted some Mountain Dew,” Tyler explained in an interview last month. The first ad was violent in a silly way, much like Monty Python’s Black Knight. “Mountain Dew Makes the Best Ad Ever,” Adweek proclaimed when it launched in March. Then the story line progressed: Felicia beats up a waitress, Felicia gets arrested for a Dew-U-I, Felicia threatens the now severely battered waitress with “snitches get stitches” when she tries to identify her attacker in a police line-up, causing her to have an emotional breakdown. Uproar ensued and Mountain Dew pulled the plug. But why? It saw the ad, it approved the ad, and it only backtracked when people started to complain. “I don’t think this is a misstep for Mountain Dew,” says Kevin Thomas, an assistant professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Texas, Austin. “They wanted to put on the veil of coolness, and getting in trouble just adds to that mystique.”

In an interview with Billboard, Tyler, the Creator didn’t see anything wrong with the video. “There’s no type of hate being portrayed in that work of art at all,” he said of his commercial. “But this older black dude … I guess he found it racist because I was portraying stereotypes.”

While Lil Wayne may be just another name in a long line of endorsement deals gone wrong, Tyler, the Creator’s pulled commercial reveals a much more nuanced problem for the advertising industry. How does a company market to a specific consumer group that values humor and edginess without alienating everyone else? That’s something Mountain Dew needs to figure out. Maybe they should talk to Old Milwaukee and Will Ferrell.

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