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The Eighties Club
The Politics and Pop Culture of the 1980s
"The Madonna/Pepsi Controversy"
from
Madonna: Blonde Ambition
Mark Bego (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1992)

It is January of 1989, and the highly popular Madonna has recorded a new album that is a mixture of personalized ballads and celebratory dance tunes. So where's the controversy? She wrote a song about her divorce, the death of her mom, and the fact that she still doesn't see eye-to-eye with her dad. Big deal. Where's the scandal? Here's where the plot begins to thicken.

In the past five years the two top soda pop manufacturers, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, had learned that an effective way to reach the youth of America and the rest of the world was to sign sizzling hot recording stars to do television commercials publicizing the cola of their choice. It had worked brilliantly with Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston -- why shouldn't it work with Madonna? Madonn'a hit songs and videos had been about love, devotion, and searching for the latest party. She ought to make an excellent spokesperson to reach teenage consumers. So ran the thoughts of executives at Pepsi-Cola when they began pursuing Madonna for their 1989 celebrity commercials.

In December 1988, Coca-Cola announced that it had signed George Michael to sell its pop to the public, and the gears started to turn. On January 25, 1989, following eight months of negotiations, Pepsi announced that they had signed Madonna to a year-long endorsement contract, for which they would pay Her Virginness $5 million. In return, Madonna would appear in a series of television commercials and Pepsi would sponsor the singer's next concert tour, tentatively slated for later that year.

Pepsi was undaunted by Madonna's image in the tabloids. "Her appeal is in her music and her acting. That's where people's interests are," announced Pepsi spokesman Tod MacKenzie.

The truly unique aspect of Pepsi's deal with Madonna was its sheer marketing brilliance. The plan was clever, tasteful, and right on target, to begin with. When controversy emerged it only placed a huge magnifying glass over the whole campaign. The by-product was a hundred times more publicity than they could have ever hoped for.

As originally outlined, Pepsi's projected plan went something like this: 1. January 25, Madonna signs her contract, and the next morning the deal become front page news in USA Today. 2. February 22, Pepsi unveils a commercial on the Grammy Awards telecast announcing the forthcoming March 2 debut of Madonna's Pepsi commercial. The upcoming event is heralded as the satellite premiere of the song "Lika A Prayer." 3. A 30-second version of the commercial will air through the summer. 4. March 3, MTV debuts Madonna's own music video version of "Like A Prayer," getting a month-long exclusive on the clip. 5. March 21, the "Like A Prayer" video and singles hit the stores -- and both become instant hits. 6. Madonna tapes a second commercial for Pepsi, which announces her upcoming tour. 7. Madonna goes on tour, which features Pepsi logos on everything. 8. Everyone makes a fortune.

What happened in reality is even crazier yet. Madonna had already met with Pepsi representatives to come up with the concept for the commercial. As planned, Pepsi paid her over $5 million for use of the song in the commercial, and production began immediately.

The director that Pepsi hired to execute the tightly scheduled video/commercial presentation was Joe Phytka, who had masterminded the landmark Michael Jackson ads for the company. According to Pytka, when he first drove to Madonna's Hollywood Hills house to discuss the commercial, she had no idea that she was expected to perform in it. "Michael Jackson had always used a special sound system for his singing, so I asked Madonna where hers was. She said, 'What singing?'"

Joe claims that she was also startled when he asked her to dance in the ad. But he felt that dancing was important for the ad because it's one of the main things that the public associates with Madonna. When Joe hired an outside choreographer, and Madonna saw the steps he was teaching the other dancers, she immediately insisted on doing her own dance.

Unlike Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, Madonna refused to insert the word Pepsi in her song for the commercial. "I wouldn't put Pepsi in any of my songs -- Pepsi is Pepsi and I'm me," she explained. "I do consider it a challenge to make a commercial that has some sort of artistic value."

When the Grammy Awards telecast rolled around, the planned "teaser" ad ran. In the ad, an Australian Aborigine is seen trekking for miles across the outback to get to a television in time to see the world debut of the forthcoming Madonna Pepsi commercial.

A commercial for a commercial? You bet. When you're dealing with Madonna, the first thing you have to do is throw out all the rules.

On March 2, as planned, Madonna's Pepsi ad ran on the Number One TV program in America, "The Cosby Show." It worked smoothly with the sitcom's wholesome family image. Elaborately produced, the ad presented Madonna in a sentimental setting that somehow successfully mixed Catholic Church imagery and Pepsi-Cola into the same two-minute clip.

The commercial, entitled "Make A Wish," opens on Madonna, lounging in her den, watching a black and white home movie of her eighth birthday party....Suddenly the images change, and it is the actress playing eight-year-old Madonna who is watching the screen, and it is adult Madonna in black and white up on the wide-screen projection TV. The little girl watches the images up on the screen -- a vision of what one day she will become.

On the video screen, adult Madonna is shown dancing in the streets, while eight-year-old Madonna and thirty-year-old Madonna examine each other's worlds. The little girl is shown touring the house that she will one day grow up to live in, and the adult Madonna tours her past....

While the gospel sound of the song "Like A Prayer" plays, Madonna dances up the aisle of a black church and joins the choir. Cutting back to the present, the time-traveling little girl walks into her adult bedroom only to find the same doll that she received for her eighth birthday....Suddenly the time travel is over for both of them, and the eight-year-old is back on the screen -- holding a glass spiral-twist Pepsi bottle from the sixties, and thirty-year-old Madonna looks on in approval with her eighties can of Pepsi in her hand. Both images toast each other with a Pepsi, and the adult Madonna says to her childhood image on the screen, "Make a wish." With that, the little girl blows out the candles on the birthday cake, and the Pepsi logo comes up on the screen with the words A Generation Ahead below it.

It was a clever spot. However, it was only to be broadcast once.

When the commercial ran that night in March, it was shown in forty countries around the world, giving it an estimated viewership of 250 million people. Not only was it the first time a hit record had debuted in an advertisement, but it was the first time a TV commercial had been given a special around-the-world satellite premiere.

So far, everything was going according to plan. However, the very next day, when Madonna's own version of "Like A Prayer" made its "heavy rotation" debut on MTV, all hell broke loose.

In Madonna's video she witnesses a murder, runs into a church in a brown slip, kisses a statue of a saint, makes love with a black man on a church pew, dances in front of burning crosses, sings with a church choir, and shows bleeding stigmata on both palms as though she had survived a crucifixion. Only Madonna could pull this video off -- it is stormy, mysterious, tragic, violent, dark, and exciting.

Prior to its airing, Madonna explained the difference between the Pepsi ad and her own video presentation: "The treatment for the video is a lot more controversial. It's probably going to touch a lot of nerves in a lot of people. And the treatment for the commercial is . . . I mean, it's a commercial. It's very, very sweet. It's very sentimental."

Madonna knew that she wanted to shake people up with her own "Like A Prayer" video, especially since the G-rated version was going to be highly visible on network television....

Although gospel recording star Andre Crouch and his choir were used on the recording of "Like A Prayer," when he heard that the video was going to entail burning crosses and potentially sacrilegious images, he wasn't interested in being involved. Instead, actors and singers auditioned to appear in the video, including members of the Friendly Friendship Baptist Church Choir in L.A.. Actor and singer Bobby Glenn was a member of the choir who was used in the music video of "Like A Prayer." A background singer for Diana Ross since the seventies, Glenn auditioned for the part....

"I got the job," Glenn recalls. "Madonna wasn't at the audition....Then we went down for the rehearsal. The rehearsal was at Solar [Studios] in Hollywood, and that was the very first rehearsal that we had with Madonna. That was really the only rehearsal."

After all the things Bobby Glenn had heard about Madonna, he was surprised by how down-to-earth she was in reality. "One of the things that I was really astonished about was that she came to the rehearsal driving herself -- with no security or anything, driving one of her cars herself, a black Mercedes convertible. She was very, very nice and very comical -- she's a very comical person. She knows what she wants and she has the attitude -- 'I'll do what I want to do.' And she doesn't care what the comments are. I didn't know at the time that this was going to be one of the videos that had a lot of controversy behind it. Neither did I know what the concept of the video was. When I saw the lyrics of the song and everything, I said, 'Oh, this is great! She's going to do a gospel video, and a gospel song on her album?' I didn't really know until after it was shot."

....By this point in her career, Madonna realized that the more scandalous the project, the more successful it would be. She was clearly begging for either the KKK or the "moral majority" to kick up a fuss. In a way she got more than she bargained for. It was only a matter of days before the controversy erupted onto the front page of every major newspaper. It was inevitable that Madonna's video was bound to stir up some sort of negative reaction from one right wing religious group or another. Reverend Donald Wildmond of the ... American Family Association, a self-righteous Christian group, threatened to have his AFA Journal's 380,000 subscribers boycott Pepsi until the company bowed to his demands. From his home base in Tupelo, Mississippi, Wilmond demanded that Pepsi nullify their deal with Madonna because their commercial is "putting Madonna up as a clean, wholesome role model" while her video is busily "ridiculing Christianity." Wildmond had just cut his teeth of a boycott of Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ, and he was primed and ready for a holy war with a soda pop company.

Stymied Pepsi spokesman Tod McKenzie tried to deflect the negative press. "Why isn't he going after the video?" he asked with bewilderment. "Why has he targeted really an innocent, wholesome commercial people have responded favorably to?" Oddly enough, the Pepsi executives didn't think to ask for a view of Madonna's video prior to its airplay on MTV. According to McKenzie, "We had no right."

Pepsi immediately put a hold on further broadcasting of the Madonna commercial until they could see which way the cards were going to fall. Next, a Catholic bishop from Texas, Rene Gracido, jumped into the fray and labeled Madonna's video offensive. Hot-headed Gracido not only called for a boycott of Pepsi but of its other holdings as well -- including multimillion-dollar fast-food restaurants Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

To put the frosting on the cake, Catholic groups in Italy started to protest. When a statement from the Pope was released by the Vatican that banned Madonna from appearing in Italy, Pepsi finally had to make a decision.

Fearing a situation that could lose the company a fortune, Pepsi bowed to Wildmond's and Gracido's pressure, and agreed to discontinue broadcasting Madonna's ad and to drop their sponsorship of her next concert tour. Furthermore, Madonna was allowed to retain her entire $5 million advance.

For once, even Madonna was surprised. "When I think of controversy, I never really think people are going to be half as shocked as they are at what I do. I really couldn't believe how out of control the whole Pepsi thing got."

In the meantime, March 21 rolled around, and two million copies of the Like A Prayer album hit the stores. With flames fanned high by the controversy that the video, Pepsi, the self-righteous religious leaders, and the press had created, in three weeks Like A Prayer was the Number One single and album in America, and it went on to top the charts in over thirty different countries around the globe. If there was anyone left in the world who didn't know who Madonna was up until that point, they certainly knew who she was now.

....The Madonna media blitz was on, and suddenly you couldn't turn anywhere without seeing her image or hearing her new music for 1989. The reviews for Lika A Prayer were especially complimentary, and suddenly she was seen as having much more depth than her original dance diva image hinted at.

.....As 1989 ended, it was time for the media to survey the hits, the trends, and the newsmakers of the eighties. Needless to say, Madonna's name was on everyone's list. She was one of People magazines "20 Who Defined the Decade." She was one of Time's ten "Faces of the Decade." However, her greatest honor came when Musician magazine crowned her the "Artist of the Decade."

Madonna provided the decade with seventeen Top Ten hits, had the most outrageous celebrity wedding and its most headline-grabbing divorce. She startled the public by dating both another woman and Warren Beatty. She was queen of the nouveau art of the music video, and her ever-changing fashions set trends. Madonna was the most outlandish, the most written about woman of the entire decade.