Indra Nooyi: Let the Pepsi Boycott Begin

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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.)

LINK UPDATE:

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

Thanks Mudville, Open Post. And Traffic Jam at OTB

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23 Responses

  1. Sierra Faith says:

    Pepsi Gives Americans the Finger

    Reading this simply aggravates to no end.

    Charmaine Yoest is all over Indra Nooyi, President and CFO of PepsiCo for such charming condescension as:

    So, remember, when you extend your arm to colleagues and peoples from other countries, make sure

  2. Indian says:

    It is a real surprise that the president of one of the top American companies has gotten herself into an avoidable controversy. But i feel that too much is being read into what she has said, Is it because she isnt an American ( by birth?) maybe, if some Bill Gates had used the same analogy i doubt whether there would have been so much hue and cry.

    But let us look at what she was trying to convey, she was maybe saying that US has a special responsibility towards the world especially with its economic power that can make or break many a developing countries’ economies including India. And that Americans need to be conveying just that.. a sense of being reponsible and protective.and not to convey what a raised middle finger conveys.

    Only sheer childishness and lack of maturity would lead to not using pepsico products and offloading pepsico shares!

  3. Ron says:

    Ms Nooyi is not taking a beating because of her ethnicity or nationality but for her attitude. Pepsco is an American company that went international and would rather be international in its company culture. Like it or not the US is the place everyone wants to be despite their hate for it. The US is #1, if you will. Pepisco has always played second fiddle to Coca Cola and has that second place jealous mindset. Ms. Nooyi just let her attitude slip out in the wrong place. She will go the way of the Dixie Chicks for being honest with their feelings.

  4. Mike Perry says:

    “Is it because she isnt an American ( by birth?) maybe, if some Bill Gates had used the same analogy i doubt whether there would have been so much hue and cry.”

    Actually, if Gates had made the remarks, there’d be an even greater outcry. Gates has a lot of people here who dislike him and his high-handed ways. I live only a few miles from his $50+ million home and tire of hearing him and his dad whine that our state’s taxes ought to be higher, while doing their best to evade taxes themselves. And Microsoft is notorious for playing fast and loose with IRS regulations. I was almost part of class action lawsuit over that behavior.

    It’s possible that, not being native-born, this Pepsi president thinks “the finger” is cute. It isn’t. It’s an obscene gesture, the sort of thing that jerks give to other drivers as part of a road rage incident. I’ve suggested to the Pepsi board that the only way they can make amends for this is to do something very positive for the real target of her “finger” of contempt–our troops in Iraqi. Like a lot of Europeans, particularly the French and Germans, she seems indifferent as to whether other people live in freedom or under dictatorships like Saddam’s.

    Notice that she give China and North Korea a pass as part of the thumb, although both have brutally repressive governments and rank among the world’s leading troublemakers. Why get fussy about Americans who complain over crude Chinese toliets, and yet say nothing about China’s brutal repression of political and religious dissidents? Could it be that China’s such large market for Pepsi?

    I know that in the late 1970s, when I lived in Israel, you couldn’t get Pepsi there, just Coke. Selling to democratic Israel would have lost them the much larger Arab market, all in repressive dictatorships. That’s yet another reason to boycott Pepsi for Coke.

    –Mike Perry, Untangling Tolkien, Seattle

  5. Sensible Mom says:

    Nice job of posing the “20 questions” to the PR people. This is a term a former boss of mine used when he dug into our work. We needed to be prepared to answer very deatiled questions about our research.

    You didn’t just complain, you made them think and made them realize that you (and most of us out here) are smart enought not to be soothed by their slick explanantions. Thank you.

  6. handy says:

    Only sheer childishness and lack of maturity would lead to not using pepsico products and offloading pepsico shares!

    Well…consider me childish, but I bought diet coke today and it was just fine.

  7. ForNow says:

    When American public figures talk that way publicly, they get plenty of attention, especially if they make a habit of it. If Bill Gates made such remarks at a graduation ceremony and the remarks became public, I think that it would gain plenty of attention. In fact, last year, a number of graduation addresses by Americans here in the USA caused controversy, and I don’t recall any of those as being by corporate heads or by foreign-born Americans (though maybe one of them was Canadian-born, who knows).

    * * *

    The text at this Website is so light against the white background, that it’s hard to read even when enlarged. As somebody who used to produce graphic presentations and now has a problem in one eye, I regret some of the reading difficulties which I cause those who don’t see so well.

  8. OC Chronicle says:

    The Pepsi Challenge

    Misconstrued? What is the proper understanding of “Now as never before, it’s important we give the world a hand — not the finger.”?? Please, PepsiCo instruct me on the correct construal of this statement?

  9. Old Grouch says:

    The speech itself is now the least of PepsiCo’s problems. Regardless of what Nooyi was attempting to say, the “finger” analogy had, at minimum, a potential to be offensive or misunderstood. Someone should have fixed it before the company’s CFO got embarrassed by it. The fact that the fix didn’t happen raises some disturbing possibilities:

    • PepsiCo’s people didn’t catch it: They are clueless.
    • PepsiCo’s people did catch it, but weren’t bothered by it: They don’t even know their home market, and are therefore incompetent.
    • They did catch it, but were afraid to tell Nooyi of their concerns, or the concerns got blocked at some intermediate level: Wrong management culture, bad news.
    • They did catch it, but intentionally withheld comment in hope of controversy. Subordinates sabotaging management, again bad news.

    Any one of the above would be sufficient reason for shareholders to worry.

  10. Greg Walker says:

    I guarantee you that Indra Nooyi dreamed up the “rest” of the hand illustration AFTER she thought of the US as the middle finger. Five fingers representing five CONTINENTS?! Since when is the U.S. a continent? And how in blazes does the ring finger represent So. America? And Europe, represented by the index finger, points the way to what, pray tell? The wine and cheese?!!!

  11. esl says:

    I suspect if Bill Gates had said something half as offensive, he would be vilified much more than this. A lot of people think he’s the devil incarnate anyway. The difference would be in the consequences though. Boycotting Microsoft would be pretty hard. Even with that, Gates would know better than to risk his Microsoft to damage from voicing controversial opinions publically.

    Pepsi on the other hand basically sells sugar water. One sugar water is just as good as another. Giving it up altogether is probably good for the wallet and the old gut. Since Pepsi spends hundreds of millions of dollars on projecting a feel good image, this is bad news for them. I think with the soda products it may be a wash since some idiots may switch to Pepsi to show “solidarity.” I would think that Gatorade will be the biggest loser. I’m willing to bet that demographics for Gatorade is would be seriously offended at what this woman has said.

  12. AmIRealHumanBeing says:

    What are we trying to portray in this so called controversy. If you compare US of A with little finger, in some culture it denotes urinating. Ring finger is … yes, sex maniac. Thumb is intruding.

    I agree as a human being, we try to look everything negatively. Have we heard of Empathy ? what is the meaning of that ? If yes, we would have understood Indra’s speech.

    This is my opinion, after reading the complete transcript.

  13. Ivy League Grad says:

    This incident again shows how much business school grads need to grow up. One misguided youth is pointing finger at a person who was invited for her professional success, and who used analogies to communicate a point. It seems like a business education (read MBA) need to re-learn the intricacies of life before they can achive and contribute. To listen and to understand is a skill that needs to be re-imparted. Grow up!

  14. Piling On PepsiCo

    I’ve sort of outgrown the desire to post “Yeah, me too!” in response to individual stupidity like Ms. Nooyi’s speech to Columbia MBAs, but this time, I have a…

  15. Gerald Koelling says:

    Ms. Nooyi must believe that Pepsi,FritoLay,Quaker, and Gatorade are full of ingredients which delude consumers to believe the unbelievable. Perhaps Mrs. Nooyi, who resides comfortably in the upscale side of New England, should ply her political view of the US by moving to some part of the world which does not “give the finger” to the rest of the world. How about Cuba, Sudan, or Iran, Mrs. Nooyi? The Land of Opportunity has become the Middle Finger of the World to Mrs. Nooyi. She can correct this immediately by resigning from her position as an officer of a major “Middle Finger” company and moving to a new home more analogous to another portion of the anatomy.

  16. chris b says:

    At Powerline, Nooyi is quoted from a 2002 speech at Dartmouth saying “Acknowledge what you don’t know.” Yet look at this Business Week account from earlier that year of how she odered the pilots of her corporate jet to land despite the warnings of the pilots that the weather made it unsafe. If all she causes is a crash in Pepsi’s stock price, she should consider herself fortunate.

    http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/02_09/b3772085.htm

  17. Susan says:

    Well, I downloaded the speech made by Nooyi. I was wondering while reading it, how much of a chance Ms. Nooyi would have being an multi-millionaire CEO of a company in India where her parents were born. She sure is taking a lot for granted in her speech. She actually thinks that her analogy of America being the middle finger on the hand, the longest finger…isn’t going to offend anyone? She must live in a liberal bubble.

  18. esl says:

    It’s pretty amazing how fast this is moving. Pepsi went from a non-apology, “Let me tell you what you really heard.” to “I’m sorry, I was wrong.” on the sidebar of its website to that same apology as the main item below the text of Ms. Nooyi’s speech. From Pepsi’s perspective, this went from an annoyance to a full blown crisis without the usual intermediate steps at “needs attention” and “serious problem.”

    I suspect that the next step is a statement from the board stating how proud Pepsi is about being an American company and that it supports many worthy causes, etc. It will also state that it values its employees’ rights to express their personal opinion since this is a quintessential American value.

    Marines are taught never to leave one of its behind. Pepsi’s CEO, Steven Reinemund, would probably be very reluctant to toss Ms. Nooyi overboard but he may not really have any choice. Pepsi is an image conscious company (it spent over $8M on those Super Bowl ads with Brittany Spears) and Ms. Nooyi will do nothing positive for Pepsi’s image.

    Mr. Reinemund, as a former Marine officer surely knows how to direct an artillery fire on an enemy position. That would go something like this:

    FDO (Fire Direction Officer): Fire one for effect, over.

    Fire Base: Fire one, out.

    FDO: Splash, over.

    Fire Base: Splash, out.

    Splash is the signal for the impact of the round and in this case, the sound of one CFO hitting the water after she is tossed overboard.

  19. bj says:

    Wow, can you guys even hear yourselves? Indra Nooyi gave a talk where she said America should work with the world, and that there are people out there in the world who think that we don’t. How can that possibly be an outrageous or controversial statement?

    For perspective, read her comments to Indians in New Delhi, where she similarly admonishes and praises India for what it is versus what it could be.

    http://www.ficci.com/ficci/media-room/speeches-presentations/2002/Feb/feb-social-indra.htm

    (I, personally, thought the analogy was kind of cute, but I suspect that Nooyi was a bit tone deaf about the meaning of the finger to some. That is a price she pays for not being American born).

    bj

  20. Agnes says:

    Have written Pepsi several times and been the recipient of the exact same letter twice. Also received a phone call from someone. Nooyi isn’t going anywhere and Pepsi doesn’t care. I take a copy of Pepsi products with me when I shop at the commissary and let my fellow consuers know. Next step, letter writing campaign to restaurant chains that carry Pepsi not Coke.

  21. Global Citizen says:

    I wish I had the time to answer every single posting but I’ll just take the starting one as those of you who followed Charmaine’s daft reasoning will hopefully reconsider some of the things you wrote. Let me at this point say that the finger anology was unlucky and well… in hindsight pretty stupid, wasn’t it?

    But you should be proud of foreigners who have realized their dreams in your fabulous country and who have found a home there. They are part of an ongoing historical process that makes up the strength of your country: the many cultures and the strong diversity that gives America a unique perspective. All of you are no more but descendants from families that were in the same situation maybe only several decades ago, so people let’s get one thing straight: drop the foreigner vs. “natural-american born” discussion, you are only ridiculing yourselves!

    Anyway,

    Dear Charmaine, I applaud your activism in this matter though I wish someone would take you by the hand and show the great big world that is out there (yes, there is one outside the U.S.). If I may quote you:

    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.

    __________________________

    –> that’s in part because the business environment in the U.S. is so hostile with regards to public scrutiny that employees in any firm are scared just to sneeze to avoid sanctions by stockholders or lawsuits by those that poor twat might have accidently sneezed on.

    __________________________

    They should be.

    __________________________

    –> Your exgerated melodramatic writing clearly indicates that you have a need for attention. Let’s read further to see if you really have a point to make.

    __________________________

    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.

    ________________________

    –> Are you sure losing her job is punishment enough? Boy what a great member of society you are.

    ________________________

    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.

    _________________________

    –> ELS posted a very accurate comment:

    “What are we trying to portray in this so called controversy. If you compare US of A with little finger, in some culture it denotes urinating. Ring finger is … yes, sex maniac. Thumb is intruding.”

    __________________________

    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.”

    _________________________

    –> So the anology in the worst case scenario is that the U.S. is seen as the middle finger to the rest of the world? Even if this was not her intention, and I am positive it was not, have you ever considered the mere fact that THERE MIGHT BE SOME TRUTH TO THAT?!!? That does not make me a traitor or unpatriotic (by the way many of you mix up patriotism and nationalism. Loving the United States because no other nation is as great as ours is somewhere between nationalism and chauvinism. Those that love this nation as a part of this great world that we live in are patriots.).

    It is the attitude of those that hide behind the shield of patriotism to justify things like Vietnam and Cambodia, Korea, and Iraq in a nationalistic manner that forces the rest of us who consider themselves global citizens to be ashamed once we travel abroad. And unlike you Charmaine I have travelled abroad.

    ________________________

    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.

    _______________________

    –> So now Nooyi, Maini, and Leskowski are the hypocrites? The middle finger emphasizing the leadership role this great country has in the global society? You never mention why you dismiss that. If you don’t except their explanation, don’t you owe everyone an explanation as to why not?

    ________________________

    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.

    ________________________

    –> Maybe that’s because we live in a country where we empower people, in this case a person who is CFO and has contributed with deals worth over $30 million to the company. I do respect if you wish to be monitored when you do your job however, give me the contact of your peers and I’ll inform them immediately.

    _____________________________

    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.”

    __________________________

    –> Excuse me?!? How do you make up such a ridiculous interpretation?! And what’s your point? That Americans are ugly and perceived as such in the world? Or that Americans should not go out in the world and be ugly to others? If you interpreted the former you have issues. If it’s the other, than why are you appalled? No citizen of any nation should go to another and be ugly. It’s simple cross-cultural management, not an America specific problem!

    ________________________

    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.

    ____________________________

    –> At this point it becomes clear that your personal tirade is precisely that and nothing more. It’s the same way you would view people from another country if they came to the U.S. and acted that way. You would remember their nationality and include in your recollection of the event. This was a lecture at an American University for predominantly future top American executives. It says more about those (including yourself dear Charmaine) that wish to misconstrue the analogy than it does about Nooyi and whatever you wish to accuse her of. Her insensitivety is nothing compared to your narrow-mindedness.

    Best Regards.

    _____________________________

    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.)

    LINK UPDATE:

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

    Thanks Mudville, Open Post. And Traffic Jam at OTB

  22. John Northrup says:

    I think to a great many people America does appear to wave it’s middle finger and say “don’t like it?… well Fu*# Off”… It is this attitude that has both made us great and made us so hated. I think you also got the Indra Nooyi thing wrong, today she was named CEO of PepsiCo.

  23. Khalil says:

    She said the right thing. I’ve had first-hand experience with some Americans in the workplace. Middle finger is the perfect description for them. I’m going to drink nothing but Pepsi.

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