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Madonna's banned advert

The Magazine's review of advertising

THE ADVERT: Madonna, singing Like a Prayer for Pepsi in 1989

THE SCHTICK: The cola wars in full swing, Pepsi wheeled out its big gun - the Queen of Pop - to perform her latest single

Eight-year-old "Madonnna" in the 1989 advert
Madonna's "young self" in the advert

THE BREAKDOWN: It was, the TV voiceover promised us, not to be missed. The Material Girl was to put the fizz into Pepsi's campaign - for a fee of $5m.

The premiere of Madonna's Like A Prayer in a two-minute advert was notable enough to be reported on ITN's News At Ten, and ITV ran trailers advertising when it would be shown - 8.12pm on Thursday 2 March, 1989.

But within 48 hours of the much-hyped worldwide premiere, the company pulled the ad, and it was never screened again.

This was because influential church groups in the United States had threatened a mass boycott of Pepsi products, troubled by the Catholic-born star's ongoing flirtation with religious imagery.

The ad starts with Madonna watching black-and-white footage supposedly of her own eighth birthday party.

While our commercial bore no resemblance to the video, many people who were offended by the video made no distinction between the two
Pepsi spokesman

Then magically, the star and her younger self switch places. Mini-Madonna wanders around the singer's apartment, marvelling at posters of her adult self and finds the same doll she has been given as a birthday gift. The ad ends with grown-up Madonna telling her young self "go ahead, make a wish" - as they both drink Pepsi.

That slogan was intended to become as synonymous with Pepsi as "It's the real thing" is with rivals Coke. But the feelgood factor did not last long for its executives.

Within a couple of days came the second act in the drama. The video for Like A Prayer hit TV screens.

Black saint in Like a Prayer
It was great for anyone religious - it shows Madonna witnessing an attack and then going to a church for guidance
Leon, who played the black saint

It opened with Madonna fleeing the scene of a young woman's murder. She runs into a church and prays before a statue of a saint, played by a black actor, before flashbacks reveal she witnessed the attack, carried out by a white man. But an innocent black man (the saint's double) is arrested.

There are burning crosses and Madonna suffers stigmata before heading off to put right this miscarriage of justice.

Within hours, American religious groups complained about the portrayal of Jesus Christ (as some viewers assumed the saintly character to be) as a black man being kissed by Madonna.

With MTV unlikely to ban the video, the groups tried a new tack - threaten to boycott Pepsi.

The campaign was promptly shelved. Twenty years on, a Pepsi spokesman says it was an unfortunate episode.

"While our commercial bore no resemblance to the video, many people who were offended by the video made no distinction between the two. We felt that the only appropriate step under the circumstances was to immediately stop airing the commercial."

Business decision

Ruth Mortimer, associate editor of Marketing Week, says that today there would be even more of a reaction.

Top Of The Pops only showed an edited version of Like a Prayer

"Religious groups know what they can achieve if they complain. Big companies in the States tend to be particularly sensitive in that area."

When it comes to celebrity advertising campaigns, companies buy into the star's image.

And when things go wrong for that person, it's time for a corporate rethink. Wrigley's chewing gum recently withdrew its adverts starring singer Chris Brown, who is facing assault charges.

Ms Mortimer believes Pepsi had little choice: "You have to weigh it up carefully, whether the complainants come from a group that are particularly likely to buy your brand.

"Pepsi is a very mainstream brand so it's quite difficult for them to do something edgy."

Title track from Madonna's fourth album
Single spent three weeks at number one in UK and US
Her eighth best-selling UK single
It won an MTV award and Madonna thanked Pepsi "for causing so much controversy"

Since 1989, Pepsi has had more big-name celebrity endorsements (Britney, Beyonce and Beckham) while Madonna has fronted campaigns for companies as varied as Max Factor, BMW, Versace and Gap.

Clare Parmenter, of the Madonnalicious fansite, says Pepsi should have realised Madonna might be a controversial choice.

"She has become more famous for shocking people since then. It seemed like it was the start of her really pushing the boundaries."

Leon, star of Madonna's Like A Prayer video
Leon remained friends with Madonna and once took her to a reggae club

So what happened to the other central figure in the drama - the black actor who played the saint and the innocent man?

Leon (who, like Madonna, eschews his surname) went on to star in Cool Runnings, Disney's 1993 film about Jamaica's bobsleigh team.

He's also appeared in Sylvester Stallone's Cliffhanger and Ali with Will Smith, and in TV films about The Temptations, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard.

He recalls: "I didn't want to do a pop video. I saw myself as a serious actor and all I knew of Madonna was her dancing around. But I was persuaded to meet the director and hear the concept."

He did not see the storyline as controversial. "I actually thought it was great for anyone who is religious. It shows Madonna witnessing an attack and then going to a church for guidance.

"I really think that Pepsi made a hasty decision, but it was their own money they were throwing away."

Ad Breakdown is written by John Hand

Below is a selection of your comments.

Every time I hear this song (and I haven't seen the video since), I remember one of the lads in my class at a convent school persuading the dinner ladies to let us into the TV room at lunch the day after to watch the video that he'd recorded. As innocent eight-year-olds, we didn't understand the controversy at the time. The dinner ladies were more concerned that we turned it off straight away afterwards, as the advert was sandwiched between two parts of The Bill, which they did have a problem with. The nuns had no idea what we were all up to, otherwise there would have been trouble.

This was a high- profile mistake by Pepsi. Religion is sacrosanct and what a own goal it turned out to be by the drinks giant. No wonder it only aired once.
Kevin Rooney, Downpatrick, N Ireland

It's a great video. There is nothing offensive about it at all. In fact it promotes racial and gender equality. Madonna always uses her artistic talent to bring happiness into this world and her videos and shows always have very positive messages.
Carol-Ann MacNeil, Port Hope

"Within hours, American religious groups complained about the portrayal of Jesus Christ (as some viewers assumed the saintly character to be) as a black man being kissed by Madonna." I find that this relates to a problem that many Christian groups in the US have a stereotypical image of Jesus being white. This inability to accept that Jesus could have been any other ethnicity shows the kind of racism that can exist within religion.
Greg, UK

Like a Prayer was so huge as Madonna herself, Pepsi would have gained a lot if they wouldn't have stopped air commercial. The company would have increased its income a lot. But every one only cared about Madonna who finally was the true winner: her single went to number one globally, the album is one her best by date, the video is still spectacular for its mysticism, and she kept the Pepsi $5m. Long live the queen of pop.
John Ramirez, Medellin, Colombia

I will now boycott all Pepsi products indefinitely. Giving in to raving religious fundamentalists cannot be accepted.
MarcMillionaire, London/Frankfurt

This is the first time I have ever seen anyone commenting on this video *actually understand the storyline*. At the time it aired people were screaming about how sacrilegious it was and I couldn't understand how they could be so dumb. It was a story about a woman drawing strength from her faith (ecstatically so) to do the right thing and risk testifying against a gang.
Matt Redding, Detroit, US

It's very unfortunate, not to mention embarrassing, to be a citizen of a country whose population is so childish as to take offense on behalf of their "god" over the content of a video. The advertisement sounds clever, and had nothing at all to do with the video/song.
Pam, Delaware, USA

Before Pepsi had images, so did the church. These images are not trademarked, but they do carry deeper meaning then any ad. What is interesting is the use, or abuse, some people put to faith imagery, I'm thinking of Jerry Springier the Opera. If someone took Pepsi and misused the brand they would get upset, however if you misuse the images of faith, that is called creative when it is not. It is taking what is sacred to someone else and desecrating it, it is cultural imperialism (misappropriating someone else's culture) and modern colonialism. Let us all have respect for other people's culture, and if people want to attack my culture, then it seems logical to me that I may not want to buy their product. The basis of society is respect and dialogue, not dancing on what other people think of as sacred.
Ed Manning, Coventry, UK


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