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On February 20, Sprite concluded its national step competition, aptly named the Sprite Step-off, in Atlanta, Georgia. Black sororities and fraternities from around the country have competed since September in what Sprite has called the “largest step competition in history.” The performances were also broadcast on MTV2, which wrapped up this past Sunday. Over the last few months, Sprite (and Coca-Cola) has been praised for reaching out to the black community through the Step-off, but the results of the final performances stirred up a lot of controversy.

Since stepping is traditionally part of the black cultural experience, some were surprised to see a white step team make it to the finals. Even the host, Ryan Cameron, said that his jaw dropped during their performance, but noted that “stepping is for everybody.” Though the predominately black audience loved Zeta Tau Alpha’s routine, when it was announced that the white team from the University of Arkansas had won the competition, some were furious.

The Washington Post reported that, “Large sections of the crowd started booing. Then Internet and radio-call-in warfare broke out when the videos were posted on YouTube. There were allegations of cultural theft and reverse racism, not to mention race-based taunting and name-calling.”  The Root went on to say that critics don’t analyze whether Zeta Tau Alpha steppers were actually better or not; instead, they seek to deny ZTA (or any non-black groups) the “opportunity to compete based solely on their skin color.” Five days following the event, Sprite made an interesting decision regarding the performances, stirring up even more controversy.

On February 25, Sprite posted a message on its Facebook page, saying that there was a discrepancy in the scoring. Their decision was to increase the winnings and title of the second place winners, Alpha Kappa Alpha, a black sorority from Indiana University. While many people were happy to hear that AKA also received the grand prize and title, some said it was just a PR move by Sprite to stop the bickering. From the beginning, the Step-off has been a way for Coca-Cola to connect with a very targeted community in a relatively unconventional way. It has always been a PR and advertising campaign for Sprite. I can only imagine that the PR people at Sprite were extremely frustrated to have to deal with this issue at the very end of their otherwise successful campaign.

The Smoking Section noted the implications that Sprite’s decision has on their brand: “I’m a little wary of drinking Sprite now. I’m hearing reports that it will weaken your spine.” Their evaluation was not uncommon either. It seems the company believed tossing another $50,000 at the AKAs would rectify the problem. What it did was amplify the controversy. Before the decision, the debates surrounded “reverse racism,” in which some believed the judges scored the white ZTAs differently based on their race. With the change, Sprite negotiated with the terrorists, indirectly saying that race may have played a part. Sprite’s timing on the issue didn’t help either; the company let people talk for five days. It should not have taken that long to investigate a “scoring discrepancy” and come to a decision about it. Though Sprite’s intentions were probably good, it seems they destroyed a big part of what their campaign attempted to do.

So was Sprite’s reputation in the black community destroyed or was the AKA decision unimportant for them? Considering the backlash from the community, what could they have done to avoid having this PR disaster on their hands? Was there a better way the situation could have been handled?

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