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Pepsi Boycott

Indra Nooyi: Let the Pepsi Boycott Begin

May 18, 2005 | By | 23 Comments


Indra Nooyi

President and CFO, PepsiCo

Now as never before, it’s important we give the world a hand — not the finger.”

May 15th speech, Columbia Business School

I’ve been on the phone this morning (and again this afternoon) with PepsiCo, and, once they finish their prepared script, their Public Relations staff sounds hesitant, puzzled. . . and scared.

They should be.

Let me see if I can help with the puzzled part. I’ve just finished reading a speech that business school students will be reading for years to come as a case study in how to keep your job, or not to, as the case may be. I’d bet money that Indra Nooyi won’t be keeping hers.

Here’s the background. Indra Nooyi, who is, for now, the President and CFO of PepsiCo, gave an address to the graduating class of Columbia Business School on Sunday. In the speech, she talked about America’s role in the world, using the hand as an analogy. Each finger of the hand was assigned a country: little finger, Africa; thumb, Asia; pointer finger, Europe (oh pu-leaze!); ring finger, South America; and middle finger — oh yes, that would be us: the United States.

Wes Martin, one of the graduates listening to this speech, was appalled, and wrote to Scott Johnson at Powerline about Nooyi’s “diatribe about how the US is seen as the middle finger to the rest of the world.”

Another Powerline reader, Rayne Steinberg, wrote in to verify Martin’s account: “Wes Martin’s report is 100% accurate. . . .It was rather shocking.”

Ms. Nooyi responded this morning in a “Message from Indra” on the PepsiCo website:

I refer to North America and particularly the U.S. as the middle finger because it is the longest and anchors every function the hand performs. The middle finger also is key to all the fingers working together effectively. That is how I view America’s place of importance in the world. . .The point of my analogy was to emphasize America’s leadership position. . . Unfortunately, my remarks at Columbia University were misconstrued and depicted in a different context as unpatriotic. Although nothing could be further from the truth, I regret any confusion or concern that I may have inadvertently created.

PepsiCo is trying valiantly to emphasize the “misconstrued” line. That word come up several times when I talked with them this morning. Terri Maini, a Consumer Relations Supervisor, told me, “I really think it was misconstrued.” In response to my follow-up questions, Donna Leskowski, Manager for Public Affairs, said much the same thing.

One question I asked was: What is their speech clearance process? Did anyone in PepsiCo sign off on this speech? Did they really let Nooyi sally forth talking about America giving the world “the finger” and no one said, “Uh, boss, I think that’s a bad idea?”

Apparently not.

That’s the question that got me kicked upstairs. Elaine Palmer, Director of External Affairs for PepsiCo, called a little while ago to answer my question. Turns out, “We were aware of the speech,” she said. Nooyi has given the speech, using the analogy many other times, says Palmer, and has gotten a good reception. “We believe it’s a positive message,” Palmer tried to emphasize, “her point was that there are people that don’t put out the best face. . . ”

Really? Now that’s a charming Commencement message: “Don’t be an Ugly American.”

Then Palmer conceded that “perhaps” there might have been parts of the speech “in hindsight” that were . . . her voice trailed off and she shifted into positive mode about Nooyi’s “unique perspective” as a naturalized American citizen.

Speaking to Palmer’s thread about Nooyi’s ability to challenge us all to rise to greater cultural sensitivity, I asked her if she thought there was any irony in Nooyi addressing the problems related to cross-cultural communication by talking about . . . the finger.

Well, she admitted tentatively, “the analogy might have been unfortunate.”

What’s unfortunate is owning Pepsi stock right now.

So is Nooyi being “misconstrued?” Do read the whole speech. There are several examples of “unfortunate” phraseology. I think the worst is when she launched into the Ugly American example of several US businessmen in a bar who were mocking Chinese toilets. Here’s Nooyi:

This incident should make it abundantly clear. These men were not giving China a hand. They were giving China the finger. This finger was red, white and blue and had “the United States” stamped all over it.

Unfortunate, indeed.

It’s too bad that Pepsi makes Gatorade, too, because we live at the ballfield, and the Dude likes it. And training for a marathon this summer, we would have been buying Gatorade by the gallon.

But, you know, I like Powerade just fine.

(Thanks to Donald Sensing.)


Roger Kimball observes that in giving a speech delivery counts as much as words. . .

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