In crowning Serena with Nas and Nicki, Beats adds to adland's complicated relationship with culture

Beats crowned a tennis legend with Nas and Nicki Minaj in new spot, Gary J Nix considers the choice of casting problematic. / Beats

To quote Reggie from the What’s the Tea Podcast, “You may know I stan for Serena Jimieka Williams…”

I felt the need to begin this way because I am a huge fan of, as Nike put it, the greatest athlete ever; superhero; champion. When Serena is on the court, little else matters. So, when I got wind of the latest Beats commercial starring my fave, I. Was. Ready. Then I watched it and I had many more feelings than I expected.

It all started wonderfully—'Mom vs. Athlete’ on the television, showing the juxtaposition of Serena’s new life with Olympia (hopefully with the conclusion that any woman who chooses to do so can be both). It ended with Serena being presented as the Queen of Queens to coincide with the US Open taking place right now in Flushing. However, it was the accompanying cast members in between that embodied so much of the complicated feelings so many of us have with advertising and entertainment.

Enter Nicki Minaj and Nas: two of the most famous rappers from Queens County in NYC. At the surface, this decision makes plenty of sense. First, you have a woman who is constantly in the spotlight with a brand-new album out right now. Second, you have someone straight from what many consider to be the Golden Age of Hip Hop with a 5-mic album and recent successful investments on his resume.

As a matter of fact, there was a time when these two MCs were rumored to be a couple!

But, when digging into culture, in this case, hip-hop AND black culture, there is always going to be more whether good or bad. In this case, the young lady rappin’ has had a less than stellar couple of weeks with some Twitter activity contributing, in part, low ticket sales and canceled tour dates.

And the older man has recently been accused of domestic abuse. What was, at the start, a moment to celebrate Serena’s greatness, just became a lot more complicated.

All types of thoughts started to swirl. The New York City-bred part of me started rifling through all the other potential rappers from Queens: Long-time partner Chase has already harnessed the spirit of Queens for Serena’s Grand Slam campaign in the borough using LL Cool J in their commercial.

Why didn’t Beats take a different route than popularity and hire a Q-Tip, Salt-N-Pepa or Roxanne Shante?

The strategist in me thought about the fact that with Serena and Beats, two of the most popular and powerful brands out today, they didn’t necessarily need the extra rappers or another star, even though I like the thought.

The department builder in me wanted to know how many conversations took place at the proverbial table regarding who to pick, what they knew about them, why they were chosen, and they knew about them.

And, obviously, I wondered who was at the table because while this commercial passed the eye test, it is clear to me that there was an objective to tap into the culture to get more of a visceral feel.

We’ve reached a point where more people in our industry are acknowledging how important culture is to advertising. If we’re going to continue to discuss how we work in a business that lives at the intersection of art and science, it only makes sense to employ the inextricable connection culture has to art as well as utilizing the discipline of using cultural elements to connect with people. Yet and still, there is a constant balancing act, not only in the culture you apply to the creative but with a full understanding of said culture.

The relationship people have with hip-hop is already one laced with misogyny, violence, and plenty of other types of problematic context. Granted, there have been improvements from some of the artists since the late 80’s and early 90’s, but not enough to obfuscate this reality from the art. I’ve heard so many women describe their relationship with hip-hop as complicated due to these facts. Shoot, my relationship growing up in the epicenter of the culture has brought so many complex feelings with respect to how I once thought about and perceived things up to and through how I view the world today—and this is exactly what happened to me today.

I am truly wondering if the creative and strategic teams who put this ad together thought about:

One, the people who want to celebrate the star of this commercial but do not feel as if they can co-sign Nas’ contribution to the spot;

Two, how much these thought and the resulting conversation will take attention away from the ad;

Or three: how they reconciled the former, lingering face of the product’s link to the brand and how much that may or may not have swayed the decision of who to use for this commercial.

The conclusion I’ve come to, at this time, is to continue to support Serena’s athletic endeavors and think even more about this specific advertisement—partially to unpack how I’m going to feel, and as a way to illustrate how many moving pieces there are when trying to access culture as well as how important diversity & inclusion is to getting the creative right.

What’s your conclusion?

Gary J Nix s a cultural strategist and advisor council chair of communications agency Bold Culture by Streamlined.

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