In the early 2000s, Ludacris emerged as one of the top rappers in America and the rest of the world. This drew a lot of brands towards him, leading to multiple endorsement deals in the process.
One such endorsement deal was with soft drink giant Pepsi. The deal was one of the most lucrative in hip-hop history and when adjusted for inflation, can rival contemporary endorsement deals by current hip-hop stars.
Ludacris starred in an ad for Pepsi targeting racial minorities. The ad also featured the Colombian-born singer Shakira. No sooner had the ad began airing than it started drawing criticism from some American viewers.
The criticism centered around the rapper’s penchant for using profane words and references to illegal drugs. The criticism reached a crescendo when Fox News Channel commentator Bill O’Reilly blasted PepsiCo as “immoral” for hiring Ludacris, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“I’m calling for all responsible Americans to fight back and punish Pepsi for using a man who degrades women, who encourages substance abuse, and does all the things that hurt particularly the poor in our society,” he reportedly said.
Under pressure, Pepsi pulled Ludacris’ ad, saying that it had received complaints about Ludacris’ obscene rap lyrics.
“We have a responsibility to listen to our consumers and customers and we’ve heard from a number of people who were uncomfortable with our association with this artist,” the company said in a statement. “We’ve decided to discontinue our ad campaign with this artist and we’re sorry that we’ve offended anyone.”
Pepsi’s decision caused hip-hop activists to denounce the company while demanding that Pepsi reinstate the ad, and donate $5 million to the Ludacris Foundation. They also upped their demand with a threat to boycott Pepsi.
In a recent interview, Ludacris said the episode was the most challenging career moment for him. He accused O’Reilly of orchestrating the collapse of the endorsement deal.
“‘Most challenging career moment that you survived,’ first thing that comes to mind is Bill O’Reilly talking mess and making me lose my Pepsi endorsement, which is very ironic because years later, if you look it up, he came and he lost his job based off some sexual allegations,” Ludacris told Men’s Health during an episode of “The Rewind,” according to Finurah.
“So, it’s very funny how the world works and the world turns. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why a company like Pepsi would sign me, and just because this man had something to say about me on television, they dropped me from it,” he said.
More than two decades after the incident, Ludacris said he has rebuilt his relationship with Pepsi.
“…My relationship with Pepsi is now back and strong as ever. We’re helping the community together through my foundation, The Ludacris Foundation. So again, everything comes full circle and works out the way that it’s supposed to,” Ludacris said.