Decades have passed since America started an active campaign against racism in all its expressions, from everyday situations and social interactions up to the transformation of the national mentality and the entire cultural worldview. On the societal level, the struggle against all kinds of racism and discrimination based on the color of skin is fulfilled through the laws and regulations aimed at providing equal rights for all citizens. The most vivid example illustrating the willingness of the American nation to accept every member of society on equal terms was the appointment of an African-American president. However, the effects of this productive and noble initiative turned out to be ambiguous; on the one hand, it was purposefully directed at terminating racism and opening a new, post-racist era. In reality, though, the arrival of a black president has not managed to achieve satisfactory outcomes in the struggle against such adverse phenomena as marginalization, discrimination, and racism. In brief, although selecting Obama, who is an Afro-American, was an important step in the history of the United States, it turned out to be insufficient for the prevention of inequality and social disparities based on racial background. Numerous examples demonstrate that problems continue and negative stereotypes associated with the Black origin dominate the mass attitudes, perceptions, and worldviews.
One of the bright signs indicating the prevalence of racial prejudice in American society is the release of such television media products as the Mountain Dew advertisement. On March 20, 2013, Pepsi Co produced a series of three commercials directed and voiced by a black rapper called Tyler, the Creator. The ad featured Felicia the Goat as the main character of the story where the animal goes crazy after trying the drink, demands more, and beats up the waitress who does not manage to provide enough of the prodigious soda. In the further development of the plot, one can observe the goat being caught by police and then lined up with other criminals. Not surprising for the racially-biased world but outrageously disgraceful for the nation that strives for equal respect for both races, all the suspects standing together with the goat are Black. Moreover, these are not ordinary people of Afro-American origin; they represent the lowest societal ranks and look threatening. Their appearance is obviously criminal, even at first casual glance. The commercial went viral, and a few days after releasing the third part, it became the main topic for different news channels that hosted social commentators and journalists who attempted to comment and analyze this media product.
Dr. Boyce Watkins, a social commentator, expressed one of the most straightforward and openly negative opinions calling the Mountain Dew ad the most racist one in the entire commercial history. He argues that it motivates the negative stereotypes of Blacks, first, by comparing them to animals, and, second, by suggesting the idea that only Blacks can potentially be suspected for crimes (Watkins, 2013). After all, the Pepsi Co Company, which released the infamous commercial, took full responsibility and apologized to those who were offended. Furthermore, it pulled the videos from all Mountain Dew channels.
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Cultural studies supply a framework for the analysis of television and other types of media, which convey specific messages to the audience. The main assumption of the cultural perspective relates to the interpretations of the visual and linguistic signs constituting particular media products. Specifically, researchers suggest that there exist complex relationships between the meanings intended by a producer and people’s perceptions of them. In such a way, the scholars such as Stuart Hall speak of different levels of analysis aimed at disclosing the messages and their semantics. According to Hall (1980), the connotative level of a particular sign, in contrast to the denotative, or preferred, reading, deals with more complex semantic interrelationships between meanings and associations, enrooted in cultural consciousness. In such a way, for instance, advertising discourse never grounds on a “purely denotative” and “natural” representation (Hall, 1980, p. 56). The current paper aims at analyzing the commercial of Mountain Dew by PepsiCo from the viewpoint of different levels of meanings.
As a rule, mass media does not straightforwardly and unambiguously present images but “re presents” them by incorporating many additional meanings whose cultural power was called “politics of signification” by Stuart Hall (Campbell, 2015). Importantly, the researcher emphasizes that people belonging to different social groups normally perceive one and the same media product in different ways, according to their sets of beliefs and worldviews. In such a way, Hall differentiates between denotative or “preferred” reading, initially intended by the creator, and connotative (“negotiated” and/or “oppositional”) levels of understanding (Hall, 1980).
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The analysis of media representations can reveal those multiple meanings, often concerned with race and ethnicity. According to Hall (1980), encoded messages have the potential to reach the audience on condition they are organized into meaningful discourse. Furthermore, successful decoding can occur on condition the producer of a particular media product fits in the structure of social practices as well as political and economic relations. Only in that case, the messages formulated by the creator “can have an ‘effect’ . . . “satisfy a ‘need’, or be put into a ‘use’” (Hall, 1980, p. 53). Currently, the interpretation of race and ethnicity is so complex and ambiguous that neither producers nor audiences can clearly identify the prevalent policy concerning marginalized groups. Although the dominant ideology claims to be a straightforward and decisive maintenance of equality and respect for all, independent of their ethnic or racial background, the actual societal classifications are complex. They impose specific codes on both encoder-producers and decoder-receivers, who comprise knowledge constructs about the dominant understanding of the cultural, political, and social world (Hall, 1980).
For American culture, constructs of race and ethnicity are especially challenging for both producers and viewers, as well as for the society taken as a whole. In spite of many open claims by politicians and activists about the direct movement towards racial unity and disappearance of discrimination and bias against the populations of minority status, the actual state of affairs indicates that problems continue. It looks as though the post-race era, so much discussed and proclaimed, did not manage to set in, to the disappointment of the entire global community. Popular media, as a litmus paper, makes it apparent that collective consciousness still cherishes biased beliefs, stereotypes, and misconceptions related to racial and ethnical differences. Perhaps, the change in the nature of racial stereotypes really occurred, but it did not lead to the disappearance of bias and dangerous hostility. According to Entman (1992), what happened was the change in the nature of the phenomenon, particularly, the switch from traditional to modern racism. In brief, traditional racist sentiments comprised negative beliefs about the capacities and intelligence of Black people while modern racism combines “hostility, rejection and denial on the part of whites toward the activities and aspirations of black people” (Entman, 1992, p. 341).
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Unfortunately, there are many examples illustrating the continuation of conflicting, prejudiced attitudes to the people of other than White origins. For instance, to reveal the bias characteristic of media representations of Blacks, two young African-Americans drew attention of the public to the implications of the Ferguson case. Their well-known photos posted after the murder of Michael Brown refer to the fact that popular media are prone to represent Blacks as pathological criminals in spite of their individual qualities. Such dominant representations are prevalent in popular culture; they both reflect and affect racial attitudes and public policy initiatives (Campbell, 2015). Another example of complicated and ambiguous discourse characteristics of post-racial world relates to the portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in television programs. As Alsultany (2013) acknowledges, there was an increase in sympathetic portrayals of the representatives of this ethnic group after 9/11. At the same time, these positive representations did not manage to offset such negative phenomena targeting Arab as Muslim Americans as hate crimes, workplace discrimination, bias incidents, and airline discrimination (Alsultany, 2013, p. 161). In such a way, although the “dominant ideology” (Hall, 1980) officially accepted in American society may be distinguished as striving to overcome racism, the wide-spread post-racist declarations contain danger. In particular, as Alsultany (2012) asserts, they deny the persistence of racism and result in the appearance of the so-called “simplified complex representations” (p. 39). The essence of the latter is the seemingly positive representations of Muslims, which, in fact, allude to the terrorists stereotypes. Everyone knows and perceives Muslims as a potential threat to the security of the West. However, television products maintain the image of a positive attitude to the evident enemies and create a false impression of a post-race society, which is only an illusion (Alsultany, 2012).
Moreover, as a rule, popular messages impose the idea of the superiority of the powers that are and serve the interests of the wealthiest. In this regard, John Fiske acknowledged the fact that cultural studies concentrate on the constant struggle “between those with and those without power” (Fiske, 1992, p. 292, as cited in Campbell, 2015).
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On the whole, it is important to understand the context and concrete logics belying a particular commercial, or the so-called “dominant ideology” (Campbell, 2015, p. 55). Otherwise, the analysis will not be successful and capable of disclosing the connotations of the message, while denotative meanings alone do not have a significant value. To discover political and cultural contexts and implications, it is vital to analyze media texts and images on the higher levels that enable a researcher to realize “mythology” of a particular culture (Campbell, 2015). Media coverage frequently appeals to the commonsense, absolute values, and myths residing in the consciousness of all members of human societies as shaped during many centuries. Furthermore, journalism frequently aims at conveying the values prompted by the governmental policy and ideology (Campbell, 2015). Louis Althusser explained that ideology deals with both the real and imaginary relationships people have with reality; they tend to represent the real conditions of their existence through the lens of their own myths, concepts, ideas, images, and discourses (Storey, 2009, p. 71).
The producers of media messages are aware of the needs of the audience, its predominant beliefs, perceptions, stereotypes, the topics, events, and other constituent parts of the socio-cultural and political contexts. In such a way, as Hall (1980) stresses, the production and reception of a television message are interrelated concepts within the communicative process as a whole. In other words, the producers must follow the basic rules of language and discourse to make their messages understandable. Furthermore, for receivers to decode the encoded messages successfully, the creators of media products must ground in the accepted frameworks of knowledge, political and socio-economic structures, and technical infrastructure (Hall, 1980).
The given commercial presents three parts of a single story. At first, it shows the goat at a café and the couple discussing this scene. A waitress, who is White, serves the animal a bottle of Mountain Dew, and it makes him crazy with desire for more drink. When she does not manage to give the mad goat as much fluorescent green soda as he wishes, the animal beats her up. Already at this stage, the eye of the observer catches the exaggerated degree of violence the animal demonstrated towards the waitress. Besides, the view of this particular scene provokes the feelings of disgust and indignation; the goat is thrusting its filthy hoofs right into the face of the woman. Her expression is distorted with aversion provoked by such an abnormal client. The entire situation is completely senseless; moreover, it looks revolving and repellent. However, one should not forget that it is only at the level of straightforward, denotative meaning; each scene of the given commercial contains the contexts and meanings of a deeper sense in abundance, and they will be analyzed later in the paper.
One more impression that can be drawn from the first part of the relates to the picture of the goat under the influence of the Mountain Dew drink. In particular, the eyes of the crazy animal are glowing, the tongue is abominably thrust out of the mouth, and his mind is evidently lost altogether. The latter idea becomes evident while watching the pictured multicolored heads flying around the intoxicated muzzle of the goat. These four heads suggest that his mind has lost its identity, and he reminds of a split personality, what is a direct reference to grave mental issues, such as schizophrenia. After the animal has violently attacked the waitress, it runs away, although soon, it is caught by the police and taken to the station. In the third part, which is the most antiracist one, the waitress tries to identify the violator in the row of suspects but escapes with horror.
Even at the denotative level of analysis, the commercial of Mountain Dew makes the viewer feel disgusted by the visual images of violence and apparent disrespect for the Black race. American “dominant culture order” (Hall, 1980, p. 57) makes it easy for every member of the society to recognize the hidden meaning of this story. Felicia the Goat stands in one line with the representatives of the minority race, and all of them have equal chances to be convicted of the crime. Years of racial discrimination have imposed negative stereotypes about African Americans, and they are a part of “maps of social reality” (Hall, 1980, p. 56). According to these maps, the audience is likely to perceive them as potential criminals possessing lower social and economic status. Although there is a tendency is towards racial equality and oneness of the White and Black races in the modern world, the creators of the commercial openly refer to the negative beliefs and perceptions about the given minority group.
The visual signs of the Black convicts who stand in one line with the goat suggest the implications, which refer to the existing negative stereotypes associated with the racist perceptions of Blacks in society. The appearance of every suspect presented in the commercial alludes to the images of the most marginalized groups of Black people. The producer shows them as representatives of the lowest ranks of society, with the appearance characteristic of hip-hoppers, gangsters, and muggers. As Watkins remarked, the criminals standing in one line with the Mountain Dew goat were “not just regular black people, but the kinds of ratchety negroes you might find in the middle of any hip-hop minstrel show (Stampler, 2013). In such a way, the Pepsi Co Company revived the disgusting traditions of corporate racism, which are currently the target of struggle for the entire democratic society not only in the United States, but globally.
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These visual signs point out straightforwardly to the social and political beliefs that have always belied inequality based on the color of skin. Next, the mere fact that the audience can see exceptionally Black people in the line of criminals connotes that only marginal individuals with dark skin can potentially be violators. One more sign is that these people, who equally belong to the human race along with the Whites, are placed on the same level as the animal. The viewer may either understand or misunderstand the “encoded” message of this scene enciphered by the producer if the codes turn out to be asymmetrical (Hall, 1980). In any case, though, the mere fact that people of color are placed in a line with an animal cannot leave the audience indifferent. It is reasonable to assume that many will judge the creator; others will try to find the reasons and underlying factors for such messages. Some of the viewers will attempt to discern the implications and find the hidden meaning in such representations of the Blacks. All in all, the media product that brings such destructive ideas to the public judgment affects everyone.
It is obvious that the negotiated meaning proposed by the producer tries to impose the understanding on the perceiver, according to which Black people are lower than Whites; they are on the same level as animals. Another subtle detail here strengthens the mentioned implication. Specifically, the goat is wearing a suit and a white shirt while the other suspects, although human, are all wearing specific clothes associated in the “maps of social reality” (Hall, 1980, p. 56) with rappers, hip-hoppers, and other representatives of the lowest social and economic layers. On a similar note, television news tends to encourage the prejudiced stereotypes of Blacks as more physically threatening criminals (Entman, 1992). It is inappropriate to render human beings in such light if the culture and society choose to move in the direction of spirituality. It is clear that racism and other kinds of discrimination against people based exceptionally on their color of skin must be overcome or else the proclaimed era of post-racial world will never end. Overall, the commercial under discussion maintains obviously dangerous and inappropriate perceptions and beliefs. They are unacceptable in today’s culture since the modern tendency of the entire world and American society, in particular, is towards the equity of human rights independent of racial or ethnic background.
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In addition, as the producer of the commercial uses humor, his messages and implications receive even more power. The reason for that fact is that the concepts and ideas suggested in a humorous way appeal directly to the human subconsciousness and easily release evil but strong misconceptions. These erroneous beliefs and attitudes are especially dangerous for the young generations whose worldview develops under the great influence of the cultural messages conveyed through widespread mass media. As Entman (1992) stated, television news influences cultural values in many ways; it is capable of both preserving and transforming worldviews accepted in a particular society. From this perspective, the underlying negotiated meanings, which can be tracked in such commercials as Mountain Dew ad, may translate dangerous attitudes to the audiences and break the entire system of ethical values. For instance, the scene of the beaten waitress, all bruised and injured, trying to point to the criminal goat strikes by its revolting view and the overwhelming sense of ambiguity. In spite of the horrible signs of violence on the woman’s face and body, the commercial presents the whole scene at the station as a joke. Such obvious discrepancy between the severity of the subject and its presentation calls the natural indignation from the critics. As Watkins truly observed, the commercial tried to turn intimidating the abused into a joke (Stampler, 2013), and it suggests an unacceptable perspective on the subject.
Another example of appealing to the dark side of the human psyche undertaken by the creator of this commercial can be seen in the first part of the story. Particularly, a sip of the drink makes the goat crazy and violent; apparently, the commercial negotiates the message to the public, which is associated with love, desire, and pleasure. The principle of pleasure is the rudest and simplistic conceptual framework for the interpretation of the personality suggested initially by Freudian psychoanalysis. The latter became the target for critique by many psychological and philosophical schools, especially those of humanistic direction. The pleasure principle puts aside the higher human needs and feelings and emphasizes the dark, animal side of every individual, what is dangerous in terms of further development of the entire human race. The mentioned idea leaves out all the highest spiritual needs and considerations and refers straightly to the satisfaction of the primary instinctive desires. Furthermore, when the goat shouts “Give me more of that!” in a passionate outburst, the viewer receives the message about the unrestrained power of the pleasure. In this case, the creator influences the audience by the “common-sense constructs” and “taken-for-granted knowledge” (Hall, 1980, p. 57). In such a way, this type of knowledge reaches the majority of people who watch the goat turning crazy – the idea of the strong, irresistible pleasure, a sort of addiction, which is difficult to control. On the one hand, the rational mind of a person can warn against the evil nature of such destructive power of pleasure. On the other hand, however, everyone has a deep inherent knowledge, settled in Jungian collective unconscious, that the forbidden fruit is sweet and attractive.
At the same time, one has to admit that this episode potentially suggests another negotiated meaning. As mentioned, the goat turns crazy stimulated by the lovable drink and attacks the waitress. This violent seeking pleasure associated with the drink forces the viewer to make contradictory inferences. One side of the psyche, which is the lower dimension of personality driven by instincts and impulses, can make the audience strive for such pleasure. In contrast, the rational part of the mind makes a person notice that this doubtful love and ardent desire lead to severe consequences, namely the attack and imprisonment. In such a way, one has to agree with Stuart Hall that unlike the denotative level of a certain television sign, which is fixed, the connotative level is open to various interpretations and transformations of meanings (Hall, 1980).
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The humanistic values grounded in absolute ethics and morality supply the principal guidance for the global community at the current stage. However, as Freudian psychoanalytic theory revealed, a human being is the arena for the fight between the noble inclinations and the destructive forces of the instincts. Such products of popular media as the Mountain Dew commercial appeal, unfortunately, to the lowest and most evil human impulses and feelings instead of cherishing the worldview of moral justice and equality.
Another negative stereotype touched upon in the commercial relates to the grave social issue of violence against women. The author of the commercial, Tyler, the Creator seems to turn the fact of attacking the woman into a joke. Such light-minded attitude to physical assault performed towards the waitress contributes to a dangerous process of normalizing and downplaying violence against women (Stampler, 2013). In this way, such media products produce an adverse impact on the entire culture and its sets of beliefs and values. Step by step, the dangerous attitudes and views are installed in the subconsciousness of the new generations and become a part of archetypes. People watch commercials and other media products everywhere and at any time; therefore, their influence is considerable. Although it is clear for everyone that certain deeds and behaviors (like the beating of the waitress) are negative and unacceptable, continual exposure to such unethical situations leads to unexpected effects. In particular, people start perceiving them as normal, even funny, and soon, they do not see anything bad in otherwise awful, immoral actions. Using the terms of culture scholars, the mentioned meanings and perceptions become the part of social maps (Hall, 1980). As a result, they frame public opinion and discourage eternal values, grounded in absolute morality and appropriate for the spirituality of the human race. The consequences of these processes are fatal on the global level asthe entire worldview prevalent in human societies loses its spirituality and solid ethical foundations.
By and large, the researchers of cultural studies have developed important conceptual frameworks, which are helpful in analyzing the media messages of the popular culture. On the example of the Mountain Dew commercial, the current paper demonstrated how the producer conveyed myriads of meanings to the audiences. Specifically, the denotative level of analysis can suggest apparently straightforward meanings of the story told in the commercial. This type of meaning is normally understood by all people in a similar fashion since it appeals to the social, political, and cultural structures embedded in the mind of every individual as a social being. At the same time, the area of connotative meanings suggests a wide field of alternatives in interpreting one and the same image. In the context of reading and understanding media messages, it is critical to have a notion of the underlying logic of the political background. Otherwise, it would be impossible to decode visual and textual signs in a negotiated way and recognize deeper, problematic meanings, which stand behind the commonsense, denotative ones.
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Unfortunately, the creators of popular media frequently support negative stereotypes and misconceptions, especially those associated with race and ethnicity. In spite of numerous attempts undertaken by the official authorities, biases and prejudices against people of color persist. Indeed, such actions as the election of a black president as well as the tendency to present Muslims and Arabs in a positive, patriotic light contributed to overcoming racism. The combined efforts of the global community and American progressive forces have achieved its objective in to moving closer to the ideal of the world of freedom and equality. There are many examples demonstrating the willingness of the society at all its levels to reach the cherished dream of the unity of all races. One of those examples is, of course, the support of the Afro-Americans for the president of the country.
At the same time, the deep, interpretative reading of the television texts and images allows the observer to notice a variety of issues, particularly in the area of racial misconceptions. Even such obviously racist videos as Mountain Dew can be evaluated as normal if read on the denotative level. That is, probably, the reason why at first the viewers accepted the ad quietly (Stampler, 2013). Only after some time, the critics and commentators initiated direct claims about its racist nature that contains potential danger to the entire culture and morality of American society. It is important to acknowledge that media messages have enormous influence on the minds of all society members as they are extremely spread across all domains of people’s lives. Moreover, producers include archetypes in their texts and images, which appeal to the subconscious level of the human psyche. The latter is the strongest layer of personality, and it is capable of forming strong and simultaneously false assumptions. The reason for such a state of affairs lies in the fact that the judgments created by impulses and instinctive desires are void of rational evaluation and critical assessment. As a result, negative stereotypes are maintained in the society, and the struggle against prejudiced perceptions of marginalized groups receives little success. All in all, the cultural perspective on the media production points to the fact that messages released by television producers incorporate multiple meanings, which have the potential to form social views and convictions.