When discussing the plight of many African-American communities in the United States, I have benefited greatly from progressive classmates that claim that the trajectory of African-Americans in the United States has been as follows: Slavery, emancipation, civil rights, ghettoization and the prison-industrial complex. Along the way, African-Americans have won important victories, but the work of ending institutional racism remains to be done every single day.
I was shocked to find a new soda commercial by Mountain Dew that supposedly markets to African-American males by pointedly highlighting one of the most tired cliches of all time: The African-American male as a violent sexual deviant and criminal. This commercial is degrading to the many African-American males striving to receive their education in a largely hostile society. In fact, it has been dubbed "The Most Racist Commercial in History."
See the video below:
Even more interesting is that the commercial was created by Tyler the Creator, the brainchild of the alt hip-hop music group Odd Future. Many media outlets are already commenting on the racism of this commercial due to its complete disregard of the issue of violence against women and the sensitive issues of African-American representation in mass media. However, what is most interesting is how this commercial is representative of the treatment of African-Americans (and many other minorities) in the media.
The commercial, the third in series created by Tyler, features a police line-up of black men and a goat named Felicia. On the other side of the window are a battered woman in a neck brace and crutches, two white police officers, and an African-American man hiding in the shadows. Though the commercial features one black police officer, he by no means seems involved in the law enforcement process.
In analyzing this commercial, I found it important to understand the criticism of this advertisement in the context of the necessity of African-Americans to have honest and fair portrayals of their culture in the media. According to rising Africana studies cultural critic Lydia Kelow-Bennet, African-Americans are engaged in a tri-fold system of cultural production that functions on the basis of expressive cultures, popular culture, and mass culture. Oftentimes, mass and popular culture are taken for granted as legitimate forms of representation, while expressive cultures are denigrated.
The challenge of black public representation lies in navigating a system of power that utilizes mass and popular culture to maintain a long-standing system of oppression which remains alive and well. For example, while African-American communities may be attempting to be represented with humanity, much of popular culture, including advertisements, perpetuate stereotypes of African-American males as thugs and gang bangers and African American women as welfare queens and teenage mothers. When mass media outlets with the power to shape public perception present negative images of a certain group, the result is a consistently skewed image that becomes a dangerous stereotype. These images filter into our everyday lives: What other conscious reasons would lead people to think that all black males in black hoodies are 'suspicious'?
Luckily, the outrage over this commercial was swift. Since its debut on YouTube, the ad has been largely removed from the Internet. PepsiCo, the company that makes Mountain Dew, has since apologized. However, questions remain about the role of companies, such as PepsiCo, and more recently, Reebok, in policing the content that popular culture artists produce.
Read more about Mountain Dew's troubles here.