Emily Huber, 7-Up Bubbles Over Prison Rape, Motherjones.com, May 13, 2002.
A new 7-Up commercial featuring the soft drink's spokesman pitching the
product in prison may be a hit with focus groups, but human rights and
prison reform advocates aren't laughing.
Representatives from a broad coalition of rights groups say that the ad,
which includes jokes about prison rape, amounts to laughing at sexual
"The commercial makes light of a very serious human rights issue to sell
something as trivial as a soft drink," says Lara Stemple, director of the
Los Angeles-based Stop Prison Rape. "People would never joke about rape
outside the context of prison."
The ad, dubbed "A Captive Audience", is currently running on MTV, and is
slated to air soon on Fox, UPN and the WB network. It depicts a 7-Up
marketing exec doling out cans of soda to prison inmates. When the
spokesman accidentally drops a can, he refuses to pick it up. At the end
of the commercial, the 7-Up pitchman sits uncomfortably in a prison cell
as a much larger inmate suggestively puts his arm around the spokesman's
After the commercial debuted earlier this year, Stop Prison Rape
informally asked 7-Up to reconsider running the spot.
"We hoped that we could present them with the facts, and that they would
do the responsible thing," Stemple says. But 7-Up officials, citing
"overwhelmingly positive feedback" from test viewers, have declined to
pull the ad.
"The commercial was very well received by consumer audiences," Kyle Rose,
a Dr. Pepper/7-Up, Inc. spokesperson says. While he admits that the ad is
an "over-the-top" representation of prison, Rose asserts that 7-Up should
not be held accountable for what goes on behind bars.
"The people who need to address this problem are in the US corrections
system," he says.
When 7-Up declined to voluntarily pull the ad, Stop Prison Rape joined
with 79 other organizations, including Human Rights Watch and the Criminal
Justice Policy Foundation, in a campaign to pressure the soft-drink maker
to stop airing the commercial.
"Prisoner rape is commonly the subject of jokes, but by pandering to this
insensitivity, your company is only perpetuating callousness regarding
this horrific, widespread abuse," the group stated in a letter to
executives at Dr. Pepper/7-Up, Inc. "We sincerely hope that you will
remove the 'Captive Audience' commercial from cable and network
The controversial ad plays on the popular notion that prison rape is
commonplace, but little actual research has been done to quantify how much
sexual assault really takes place behind bars. One 1996 study of
Midwestern prisons found 1 in 4 inmates reporting that they had been
forced into sexual contact; a follow-up study found that 1 in 10 inmates
said they had been raped.
The softdrink company formally responded to Stop Prison Rape's request in
early May, telling the activist group they did not intend to pull the ad.
While there are no plans for further action yet, Stemple says that the
groups "haven't ruled out a boycott."