Talk about a Pepsi challenge: in March 1989, the soda giant canned a major promotion with Madonna over an eye-catching, controversial video.
Pop fans were hyped for the release of Madonna's fourth album Like a Prayer in the spring of '89, and Pepsi, who'd paired with MTV icons like Michael Jackson and Robert Palmer, were keen to get a piece of the action. The singer signed a $5 million deal to shoot a flashy commercial for the drink that also premiered the album's upbeat title track. "The global media buy and unprecedented debut of this long-awaited single will put Pepsi first and foremost in consumers' minds," Pepsi crowed in a statement.
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But soon Pepsi had more to deal with than they expected. The single's evocative music video, which featured an interracial kiss between Madonna and a Black saint alongside images of stigmata and burning crosses, set off a firestorm of controversy, culminating in protests from church groups. While Pepsi initially stood by the star, the commercials were eventually pulled.
Unsurprisingly, Madonna got the last laugh: "Like a Prayer" topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks that year, and is still considered one of her greatest artistic achievements. She didn't apologize, either. "Art should be controversial," she told The New York Times, "and that's all there is to it,"