LOS ANGELES — Corporations are quick to recruit rappers to sell their soft drinks, shoes and smartphones – but the moment there’s a whiff of controversy, they are just as quick to cut them loose.
The latest example is PepsiCo and Lil Wayne. The soft-drink company recently announced it had ended its relationship with Lil Wayne, a major rap star, over a vulgar sexual reference to slain civil rights figure Emmett Till in a remix of Future’s hit Karate Chop.
Lil Wayne’s controversy followed similar flaps between PepsiCo and Tyler, the Creator over a video ad the rapper created that some deemed racist and sexist, and Reebok and Rick Ross after he rapped about slipping a drug in a woman’s drink and taking her home.
Peter Sealey, a professor at Claremont Graduate University and a former head of marketing at Coca-Cola, said events like these prove how out of touch corporations can be when trying to appeal to younger demographics.
“When you market to youth, there is a perennial battle in pushing the envelope without crossing boundaries,” Sealey said. “And when they do, they throw them under the bus. It’s hypocritical ... but these (corporate) guys in their late 40s don’t know who the hell these people are.”
Sealey says the hiring of rap artists also represents a generation gap within the corporations. “If (Tyler’s ad) had been seen by senior management, no way would that have gotten out.”
A person with knowledge of the deal who isn’t authorized to speak publicly said Wayne’s partnership with PepsiCo was worth more than $7 million, and Ross was to make $3 million to $5 million with Reebok.
Ryan Ford, vice president of L.A.-based Cashmere Agency, has helped rappers such as Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar secure lucrative partnerships with brands such as Adidas, Samsung and Pepsi.
“Artists by their nature have a responsibility to be creative. Sometimes to achieve that, whether you’re a rapper or performer, you push boundaries,” he said. “When you take that unbridled creativity and attach it to a brand, the brand has very different motives.”
Add to the mix social media, which are now playing a critical role in highlighting the more dysfunctional relationships that develop when art tangles with commerce, and these odd partnerships are being scrutinized much more frequently and in a bigger arena than in the past.
The feminist group Ultra Vio-let placed ads against Ross via Facebook and Twitter and garnered more than 100,000 signatures on a petition to have him dropped by Reebok. Till’s family took to YouTube to urge the public to boycott Mountain Dew, the PepsiCo product endorsed by Lil Wayne.