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The Straight Story

An American soldier tries to get PepsiCo to answer a simple question.

12:00 AM, Jun 3, 2005 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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WHEN THE HARVARD-YALE FOOTBALL GAME was played in Cambridge last fall, Yale students pulled off one of the great college pranks of all time. During the game a fake Harvard pep squad wearing red and white face paint distributed 1,800 pieces of construction paper on seats covering the Harvard side of the stadium. When turned over in unison by the occupants of the seats, they were purportedly to spell out "Go Harvard." Instead, they spelled out "We suck." (See the Harvard Sucks website for the back story and multimedia presentations.)

The Columbia Business School MBA recognition ceremony took place at Madison Square Garden on May 15. Those in attendance might have been forgiven for wondering if they were the victims of a similarly inspired prank. The commencement speaker was PepsiCo president and chief financial officer Indra Nooyi. Nooyi's speech didn't rise to the level of sophomoric genius achieved by the Yale pranksters, but it was incredibly sophomoric.

In her speech, Ms. Nooyi likened the seven continents of the world to the five fingers of the hand. It was a funny start for the chief financial officer of a major American corporation, but she was just warming up:

This analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents leaves the long, middle finger for North America, and, in particular, The United States. As the longest of the fingers, it really stands out. The middle finger anchors every function that the hand performs and is the key to all of the fingers working together efficiently and effectively. This is a really good thing, and has given the U.S. a leg-up in global business since the end of World War I.

However, if used inappropriately--just like the U.S. itself--the middle finger can convey a negative message and get us in trouble. You know what I'm talking about. In fact, I suspect you're hoping that I'll demonstrate what I mean. And trust me, I'm not looking for volunteers to model.

Discretion being the better part of valor . . . I think I'll pass.

What is most crucial to my analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents, is that each of us in the U.S.--the long middle finger--must be careful that when we extend our arm in either a business or political sense, we take pains to assure we are giving a hand . . . not the finger. Sometimes this is very difficult. Because the U.S.--the middle finger--sticks out so much, we can send the wrong message unintentionally.

Unfortunately, I think this is how the rest of the world looks at the U.S. right now. Not as part of the hand--giving strength and purpose to the rest of the fingers--but, instead, scratching our nose and sending a far different signal.

At Power Line we first posted reports of the speech sent to us by audience members on May 17 and contacted PepsiCo vice president of external relations Elaine Palmer to ask for a copy of Ms. Nooyi's speech. At that time Palmer declined to release the text of the speech, but sent us the following message:

Thank you for checking with us on Indra Nooyi's speech at Columbia. We saw the item on your blog and are shocked to see that you took Ms. Nooyi's comments to be anything but pro-American and supportive of the United States and its role as a global leader. The characterization of Ms. Nooyi's remarks could not be more off the mark. No one is prouder of the U.S. than Ms. Nooyi, who has elected to make this country her home. Ms. Nooyi was simply encouraging the U.S, and Americans to be all they can and should be, which is something we all strive towards.

In her remarks Ms. Nooyi stated:

"This analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents leaves the long, middle finger for North America, and, in particular, The United States. As the longest of the fingers, it really stands out. The middle finger anchors every function that the hand performs and is the key to all the fingers working together efficiently and effectively. This is a really good thing, and has given the U.S. a leg-up in global business since the end of World War 1 . . .

"This land we call home is a most-loving, and ever-giving nation -a 'promised land' that we love dearly in return. And it represents a true force that--if used for good--can steady the hand--along with global economies and cultures."

We encourage you to set the record straight and explain that Ms. Nooyi was talking to the students about the necessity of working together in the world.

Palmer's message adroitly omitted the most offensive elements of Ms. Nooyi's speech, but on May 18 PepsiCo released a statement from Nooyi together with the text of her speech. In her statement Nooyi wrote that her remarks had been "misconstrued."

PepsiCo subsequently issued an apology from Ms. Nooyi. In her apology Ms. Nooyi no longer blamed others for misconstruing her speech, but rather blamed herself for "unintentionally depict[ing] our country negatively and hurt[ing] people." Ms. Nooyi's apology reads:

Following my remarks to the graduating class of Columbia University's Business School in New York City, I have come to realize that my words and examples about America unintentionally depicted our country negatively and hurt people.

I appreciate the honest comments that have been shared with me since then, and am deeply sorry for offending anyone. I love America unshakably--without hesitation--and am extremely grateful for the opportunities and support our great nation has always provided me.

Over the years I've witnessed and advised others how a thoughtless gesture or comment can hurt good, caring people. Regrettably, I've proven my own point. Please accept my sincere apologies.

PERHAPS THE MOST ELOQUENT CRITIC of Nooyi's speech is "Major E." (as he asks to be identified), the military officer who wrote to Power Line from Camp Victory in Baghdad. Major E. sent us a copy of the message he had sent to PepsiCo:

I found Ms. Nooyi's graduation comments offensive, not to mention off-base, because the central theme of her speech was that America is, in essence, "flipping off the world."

I am in Iraq, and served previously in Afghanistan. Many Americans have given their lives to liberate those nations from tyranny. In that light, I offer a few examples of "fingers" in those places that might present Ms. Nooyi a more substantive representation of American presence abroad than a trivial story of a rude traveler.

For example, she could ride on a combat patrol here and use her fingers to return the waves that I see on every mission from some of the over 8 million Iraqis whose fingers were stained with purple ink following voting in the first democratic elections after decades of tyranny. She might notice her fingers moistened by sweat as she unconsciously gripped her armrest, noticing a tinge of fear from attack by a roadside bomb--the same fear felt by myself and every other American on Iraq's roads.

In Afghanistan, many children and parents stick their thumbs straight up when Americans pass, demonstrating gratefulness for no longer living under the Taliban. I drove by Kabul University a while back and saw two young girls using their fingers to carry the books that represent the freedom to pursue education now enjoyed by Afghan women.

Now, a question that begs an answer: Does Ms. Nooyi consider that freedom an example of America "giving the world the finger," or "giving the world a hand?"

In the meantime, I will stop consuming PepsiCo products and encourage others to do the same. Please remember, it is this country, and the brave men and women who defend it, that provided the free enterprise system that allowed your company to become a global corporate power. I would hope that Pepsi senior executives would show more respect for this great country. Perhaps the troops who enjoy your products would hope so as well.

I respectfully ask for a serious response, not the "promised land" public relations pabulum response offered on behalf of Ms. Nooyi. Please mail it to my address here in Baghdad.

Major E. first received a form response from PepsiCo public relations. He responded:

Thank you for the email form letter response to the letter that I submitted. I am disappointed that you did not answer the single question that was posed.

In her apology, Ms. Nooyi admits making a "thoughtless comment," but the fact is that this was a prepared speech that had a carefully-crafted theme about America's role in the world, with an extended metaphor of the fingers. These were not spontaneous remarks, which is the main cause of my concern. The underlying values indicated by the speech surprised me, especially when the nation is involved in a shooting war and U.S. troops are dying in the effort to stabilize the newly-freed nations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Not surprisingly, the email reply did not answer my one question: Does such U.S. sacrifice constitute "lending a hand" or "giving the finger" to the rest of the world?

I have attached a photo [omitted here] that I took when patrolling in a Baghdad neighborhood just a few days before the January 30th elections. As you can see, the children are running towards our vehicle waving and smiling. To be candid, the kids probably like candy and toys at least as much as their new freedom, but they were not running and smiling previously when insurgents were terrorizing their neighborhood. That change is due to the efforts, and sacrifices, of U.S. troops to make their neighborhoods safe. Still, does PepsiCo consider the effort that U.S. troops have made in these neighborhoods, including taking casualties, as "lending a hand" or "giving the finger?"

Sorry to repeat myself, but as someone who has served in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places in the war on terror, I would like to know how the leadership of PepsiCo answers that rather clear question. Since your president, in a prepared public speech to a high-profile university, clearly, methodically explained a point of view, I am asking if that represents the view of PepsiCo Board of Directors. If I may be so bold, I think you owe an answer to the troops on the ground.

I respectfully ask for a personal reply. If that is not possible, then I simply thank you for the form reply that you distributed and the opportunity to be heard.

At this point Major E. received a personal reply, though not one that answered his question. Suzanne Gooley of PepsiCo public relations responded that "we understand that you feel Indra's apology is not satisfactory. We will share your sentiments with her, and deeply regret that you have been disappointed in this way."

Major E. responded:

Thank you for your message. Ms. Nooyi is certainly entitled to her detailed opinion that the United States these days is "giving the finger" to the rest of the world, rather than "lending a hand." Having friends who have recently graduated from Columbia, I would imagine that the audience found her remarks pleasing while I, on the other hand, did not because of the underlying values and obvious political subtext. Without question, the dominant issue of American involvement in the world is the Global War on Terror, including the liberation and continuing stabilization efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where myself and over 130,00 other Americans are serving.

The question that I have asked since my first communication on this topic is whether PepsiCo agrees with the values that underlie Ms. Nooyi's statement made as the president of PepsiCo, not as a private citizen, since she is the company's president who made the remarks from a prepared text before a high-profile graduate school with media present. In regard to our relations with the rest of the world, does PepsiCo believe that America is "giving the finger," or "lending a hand?"

This is the third time I have asked the question and though it seems quite straightforward, I have yet to receive an answer, only polite responses promising to "forward" my message. Please advise whom I can contact to find out if PepsiCo accepts or rejects Ms. Nooyi's assessment. If getting such an answer continues to be a challenge, I am prepared to beg if necessary.

Giving up PepsiCo products has constituted a special sacrifice for Major E. Until Ms. Nooyi's speech, he had counted on PepsiCo's Gatorade to replenish himself after the drenching sweat he experiences while serving in his tank. Pending a response to his question from PepsiCo, he relies on an unsatisfactory combination of fruit punch and water. It would be nice if they'd just answer his question.

Scott Johnson is a contributor to the blog Power Line and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard.