How often have we seen this back-and-forth before: a shock comic says something offensive; somebody gets offended; somebody else asks everyone what the offended party expected, given that the offensive thing was said by a shock comic; a bunch of other people chime in to say that this isn't a very good argument and that just because somebody's made a career out of being offensive it doesn't make it right? I've been at the center of this kind of battle more than once, usually being the one who reminds people that someone paid to push the boundaries of good taste and social decorum is going to do just that; if you don't appreciate that kind of thing then simply don't watch or listen. Turn the other way and go about your business.
When this kind of conundrum really becomes interesting, though, is when the people who actually pay someone who's known for being offensive suddenly respond with surprise that the person they're paying does something that's offensive. One of my favorite recent examples of this was Aflac's decision to fire Gilbert Gottfried back in March of 2011. Gottfried had been doing the voice of that annoying duck in Aflac's commercials without issue, but that changed when he decided to tweet a series of brutal -- but damn funny -- jokes about the Japanese earthquake and tsunami almost immediately after it happened. Basically, Aflac had hired one of the most gleefully loutish comedians in America to voice its mascot, then reacted with shock when he was, you know, gleefully loutish -- and on his own time, speaking for himself and not as a representative of the company he shrieked one word for in its TV ads.
But the Gottfried incident doesn't even come close to what Mountain Dew just did. It hired a group of guys who aren't just known for being unapologetically offensive, boundary-busting weirdos but who have a weekly TV show declaring as much -- a show produced by the crew behind Jackass -- only to turn around and pull the plug on them for giving the company exactly what it had presumably wanted.
A couple of days ago, Mountain Dew yanked a new TV spot from the hip-hop troupe Odd Future. The ad is the latest in a series put together by the group and it features a crass, shit-talking goat named Felicia threatening a middle-aged white woman it had beat up in a previous spot as she tries to identify her attacker in a lineup of various members of Odd Future (all of whom are black). Like the Felicia commercials that came before it, the new Dew ad is ridiculously silly and surreal and indeed leaves you wondering what the hell any of what's going on on-screen has to do with drinking soda, but that hardly matters; Odd Future's bizarre and occasionally dark brand of humor is part of what made them famous and to contract the group to put together a bunch of TV ads would undoubtedly assure that each would have their creative stamp on them. You don't bring in Odd Future to give you I'd Like To Teach the World To Sing.
So the Odd Future boys did what they usually do with this latest spot, the same kind of thing they do on their records and absolutely the same kind of thing they do every week on their Adult Swim Show, Loiter Squad, and the result was politically correct polite society losing its fucking mind. Boyce Watkins, a professor at Syracuse University and outspoken advocate on race-relations issues, called the ad, in not-at-all-hyperbolic fashion, "arguably the most racist commercial in history" and "one of the most irresponsible pieces of trash in the history of corporate advertising." Immediately smelling a dead albatross around its neck in the form of a potential boycott by people who don't drink Mountain Dew anyway, Pepsico, who makes Dew -- apparently out of angels' tears and unicorn pee -- immediately knee-jerked, pulled the ad, and prostrated itself at the feet of the angry public. The company apologized for running the exact commercial it had paid for by the group it knew from the very beginning would create just that kind of commercial.
It can be argued that a mass-marketed campaign for a product as traditionally benign as soda is no place for truly cutting edge humor, the kind of thing that heavily relies on the audience "getting it." The first time I saw the ad, I didn't think it was racist at all, but that could very well be because I'm familiar with what Odd Future and its leader Tyler, The Creator -- the commercial's director -- are generally going for with the art and music they make. With the Dew commercial, it's not as if they were trying to create some kind of ironic commentary on racism and black stereotypes simply by smacking the audience in the face with a whole room full of hyper-realized black stereotypes. It's much more complex than that. Tyler's an instigator, a guy who sometimes plays -- and plays up -- the role of the hip-hop homophobe by tossing out the word "faggot" like it's a standard greeting and who gets a serious kick out of not just stabbing American culture but twisting the knife. His material is viciously polarizing and that right there should've tipped the Pepsico people off about what they were getting themselves into by letting him direct a commercial for them. Whether it's Tyler's solo stuff or the Chappelle's Show-meets-Jackass lunacy of Odd Future's Loiter Squad, what these guys find amusing was always bound to scare the crap out of the average American man or woman over the age of 35.
Which leaves me wondering why the hell Pepsico enlisted Odd Future to do the ads in the first place. Why turn control of an ad campaign over to a group with a very specific comedic and creative vision, one that obviously had the potential to irritate and even infuriate some people, then deny them the opportunity to express that vision or panic when it does exactly what you damn well knew it might? If you're worried about pissing people off, don't even bother picking up the phone and calling Tyler and Odd Future and just get Jimmy Fallon and that precocious Capital One kid to do your spots. If you're going to spend weeks bitching about how offensive he is, don't cast Seth MacFarlane as the host of the Oscars; just hire Billy Crystal to read Bruce Vilanch jokes again.
There's always the possibility that Pepsico went all-in on Odd Future precisely because it figured there might be a public backlash that it could milk for publicity. By pretending to have the stones to air Tyler, The Creator's oddball vision, then appearing to be responsible enough to pull the ad as if it were shocked, shocked I tell you, that something so offensive had gone out over the airwaves, Pepsico gets to have it both ways. But the company has apparently decided for real that it's not taking any more chances when it comes to hip-hop stars and its image: It just severed ties with Lil Wayne over his appearance in another rapper's song in which he boasts, "beat that pussy up like Emmett Till." Needless to say, the family of the slain civil rights icon isn't pleased and, despite his attempt at apologizing, it's now demanding a meeting with Weezy.
Al Sharpton has of course inserted himself into the whole thing. Boyce Watkins has thrown in his two cents as well.
But that's a subject for a different column.