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Today in Post-Race History: Pepsi Challenge[d]

Now that the Super Bowl dust has settled, I am nursing my way out of an omg-no-football-for-seven-months depression with small bits of NBA basketball (Derek Rose has overtaken Chris Paul as my favorite player), until March Madness helps me get through the last leg of my winter hibernation.  Overall, the big game was rather entertaining, but the most discussion-worthy moments occurred before and in between it.  The reading of the Declaration of Independence by current and former NFL players and members of the military perfectly displayed why the terrorists hate us. Yet for that to be followed immediately by Xtina’s flub of the national anthem perhaps best symbolized the cracks of ignorance jeopardizing the whole God Bless America foundation so many of Fox News’ employees stand upon.  The Black Eyed Peas’ halftime performance indicated that the only thing that rivals American faux patriotism is our tone deafness and love for a group that cashed in on its obnoxious sound and trendy racial diversity–although the latter only became America-friendly when they traded their black woman singer in for a newer, white(r) model.  The Super Bowl commercials were blah at best.  There was one, however, that caused me to pay attention.  And what better way to honor of black history month and Valentine’s Day (a.k.a. Single Awareness Day) simultaneously than by mentioning the Super Bowl Pepsi ad that seemed to be all about black love?  Have a look:

Now, several people weren’t at all happy with this ad.  The (black) blogs addressed it; Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee got really mad rapper about the whole situation, and expressed her disgust on the House floor.  Rush Limbaugh even had a word or two to say about it.  What no one of them mentions, however, is Pepsi’s somewhat interesting relationship with black consumers.  A history, in fact, that leads me to wonder if Pepsi was less invested in reinvigorating stereotypes, but was perhaps sincerely interested in appealing to black consumers in the way that it previously has.

Practically all the pop-drinking black people I know imbibe Pepsi.  We never had Coke in the house.  My stepdad kept a case of Pepsi in the refrigerator in the garage–totally off limits to the kids.  My great-grandparents, Nannie and Papa only drank Pepsi.  They stocked it in the basement.  My sister used to pilfer them and drink them on her way to school in the morning until she got caught.  Nannie would to sing the Pepsi jingle to me (Pepsi-Cola hits the spot/twelve full ounces…) when I was a kid.  I don’t drink pop, but if I was offered a Pepsi or a Coke, I’d take a Pepsi.  It tastes better.

A while back, I was having a conversation with a (Pepsi-drinking) friend about Negroes and Pepsi.  I was curious about the relationship, so I decided to research it.  Consequently, I learned that Pepsi wasn’t, I dunno, the fried chicken of soft drinks, but that the company had been–pre-Mad Men, mind you–one of the first organizations to actively pursue black consumers as an untapped niche market:

In 1947, the same year that the Brooklyn Dodgers shattered racial segregation in major league baseball by signing Jackie Robinson, Pepsi-Cola hired [black marketing executive, Edward F.] Boyd to create a special markets team of African-American salesman. In the language of the time, which had unconscious overtones of slavery and the Jim Crow era, Boyd’s sales unit was characterized in some publications as a “Negro field staff.”

Pepsi-Cola’s venture, part of the post-World War II effort to promote racial harmony, actually predated the story of Jackie Robinson by seven years. Walter Mack, the president of Pepsi-Cola, took the small, if bold, step of hiring an African-American newspaper adman, Herman T. Smith, in 1940 to help increase sales of Pepsi in the African-American community. Profit making and prophetic leadership were inseparably bound together in Pepsi-Cola’s recognition of African-American buying power.

So, Pepsi’s popularity with blacks, at least the ones I know, was due to, in part at least, the company’s decision to pursue black dollars by gearing advertising to black folks, portraying them in a positive light.  My awareness of this brief epoch in Pepsi history caused me not to get all Sheila Jackson-Lee about the situation, but rather wonder if Pepsi had simply taken a cue from black popular culture and decided to, unfortunately, appropriate it for their latest ad.

I appreciate the blogs and Rep. Lee for calling out this Pepsi ad, but I think they get it wrong.  Or not all the way right.  Tyler Perry could have easily directed this commercial.  And Steve Harvey could have been in charge of the storyboard.  In fact, the male lead in this ad looks like Rockmond Dunbar, the hard-working husband from one of Perry’s flicks, The Family that Preys.  What we have in this ad isn’t an angry black woman, but rather a violent, controlling, and emasculating one.  She controls what her man eats; she controls the phallus.  All the stuff Harvey warns women against.  Like so many of the Steve Harvey book-reading, pre-saved by Madea and the love of a blue-collar (light-skinned) black man that so often populate Perry’s work, this woman is acting out of place.  In my view, this is less about her skin tone–or his–but her behavior.  She dominates her husband, infantilizes him.  And such behavior, as Tyler Perry teaches us, results in trouble: an abusive husband, estrangement from family, or, as Pepsi would have it, accidentally knocking the piss out of that symbol of supreme beauty and all that is right about the world, the white woman.

Of course, this ultimate transgression creates an aperture through which her husband can (re)claim his rightful place as leader.  As she freezes, he acts, grabbing her hand and leading her away from the scene of the crime.  Black men, of course, knowing how to run away from seemingly vulnerable white women better than anyone else on the planet.  Moreover, the wife’s rushed, half-whispered apology and the fact that she’s being taken from the scene by her husband (re)feminizes, dis-empowers her, and reinstates him.  The Perry-esque moment (re)unites the couple.  And it feels so good.  Black love brought to you through the power of fear, heteronormativity and, of course, Pepsi.

Does the ad play upon tired stereotypes to peddle a product?  Of course.  Yet I think Pepsi finds its inspiration less from the archives of white supremacy, though, and more from those figures who currently dominate black tastemaking.  As Pepsi then played upon civil rights discourse that aimed and desired for an image of respectable and positive blackness sixty years ago, Pepsi now plays upon the books we buy and the movies we see.  This ad proves that Pepsi followed black dollars to the images they support, and to rail against them without indicting these other folks, without indicting ourselves is incredibly short-sighted and lacking in self-criticism.  Sure, Pepsi put the discourse on blast during the Super Bowl, but Steve Harvey isn’t just on What Chili Wants.  He’s on NPR now, too.  And he gained admission with the Oprah stamp of approval and because black people started paying attention to them.

So if we’re going to pick on Pepsi, that’s fine.  But it’s not enough.  Pepsi’s just looking to capitalize on the tastes of Negroes.  But they didn’t start the fire.  And if you think they did, well, you got the wrong one, baby. Unh-hunh.