Send in the clowns

By MATT ASHARE  |  July 2, 2009

The best thing about The Osbournes – unlike The Jacksons – is that nobody gets hurt. Shron's the brains of the operation, and she seems aware that most of the world – not counting the people who line up to buy front-row seats for the yearly OzzFest – see her husband as a walking joke. Yeah, and she's laughing all the way to the bank. If Ozzy's even half aware of what all those cameras are doing in his house, he doesn't show it. This is a guy who appeared befuddled last season as he sat and watched himself perform on television. And after being mystified by an episode of the Food Network's Two Fat Ladies, all he could muster by way of explanation was, "They're bakin' fooking bread on the television."

Yet Ozzy too has been embroiled in controversy. In his case, however, it was Pepsi, the multinational soft-drink corporation, that stepped in it. It all started when Pepsi decided not to use a commercial featuring the aggressive and potentially controversial rapper Ludacris. Since it's likely Pepsi had an escape clause in its contract with the rapper, that decision didn't cause any flak. But when Pepsi subsequently opted to make Ozzy the star of a high-profile ad, the Johnnie Cochrans of the world cried foul. After all, if a former antichrist who once bit the head off a bat can be a legit Pepsi spokesperson, then what the hell is wrong with Ludacris? Ozzy may have cleaned up his act in recent years, but every sentence he says on TV still sounds like a bus backing up – and he knows the cameras are rolling. So when a group called the Hip-Hop Action Summit threatened to organize a boycott, the corporation made nice and agreed to pay reparations to the Ludacris Foundation.

Which is all well and good except for one uncomfortable question that I can't shake: was there really any racism involved in Pepsi's decision to go with Ozzy instead of Ludacris? Was race any more of an issue here than it is in the case of Michael Jackson's surgery? Or was it just an example of the racial card-sharps playing their hand before they had all the facts? Let's face it: Ozzy Osbourne got the Pepsi gig because nobody takes him seriously anymore. He's as harmless as a dotty old uncle. He's Benny Hill with a sketchy past. And he doesn't have anything controversial to say. Ludacris, on the other hand, is a serious rapper with a message that might make some folks – okay, mostly white folks – uncomfortable. And the Pepsi people have evry right to pick spokespeople they feel will offend the fewest cola drinkers. It doesn't take a marketing genius to figure that Ozzy is the more suitable salesman.

The beauty of it all is that there probably wasn't a single Pepsi executive who could have picked Ludacris or Osbourne out of a line-up before this controversy went down. In fact, they'd probably have assumed a guy named Ludacris was a Satanic rocker. This is one case where skin color turned out to be incidental. White or black, Ludacris was never going to make the Pepsi cut, because he's a man with a message. After all, Pepsi didn't have any trouble hiring Michael Jackson back when he looked black. The sad truth is that in today's content-free television, a message is more dangerous than the color of person's skin. Now if the NFL could only hire a few more African-American head coaches. I wonder whether Ludacris is looking for a new gig?

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