Thursday, May 19, 2005

Pepsi's Commencement Swarm

As I was coming back from meetings in LA this afternoon I heard Hugh Hewitt about his take on the Pepsi person's commencement remarks at Columbia. This story was first broken in a number of places over the weekend- I think I read it first in Instapundit. As I see this, I think the Blogosphere has it about right but I think there is also a continuing point.

I give a fair number of commencement speeches and have always believed that any commencement speaker should follow two rules - indeed one should be substantive, it is an important occasion. But the two rules are be brief and be funny. If you can't be funny you should still be brief. You are not the main attraction. But many commencement speakers feel this is their chance to make a point. She seems to have tried to be brief and funny.

In this case Ms. Nooyi tried to make a politically correct statement about the American role - in a poorly reasoned speech and when she got called on it tried to offer a non-apology apology. Did she mean what she said? Or was it mis-construed? When you read the speech - it is pretty clear that she did not bother to think out her point. It may, indeed, be appropriate to make a comment about the potential for a positive and negative role of the US in foreign and economic policy - but her speech did not achieve even that fairly simple point. Sometimes speakers can get caught up in their rhetorical devices. It is even credible to me that a person who was not born here and helps to manage an international business could make an important point on foreign policy or the US role in the world. That is a legitimate hook for her to start from. But then in what most consumer products companies rarely do - she forgot her audience and the purpose of the speech. A commencement speech is not filler between the opening and the awarding of the degrees, it could well be called a continuation speech - when done well it encourages the graduates to continue to think. But in this case she blew it.

To then compound the bonehead speech she offered an apology written in cultural fog speech of the worst kind. Hewitt quotes here response to him - "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. I made a mistake and, again, I'm very sorry."
- Indra Nooyi" What baloney.

Donald Sensing (discovered on Instapundit but found at does the best post I have seen - "Rhetorically, Nooyi’s speech was a mess. More than that, it was insulting to the graduates. She talked down to them and sought to impart a sense of shame where they had done no wrong." He then goes on to analyze the devices used in the speech and finds them wanting. IMHO that is the best post on this set of issues I have read so far.

I am not a big fan of either Pepsi products or boycotts - but I am constantly annoyed at the arrogance of commencement speakers who think they can use an occasion commencing graduates entry out of a university to make a point that does not fit the occasion. That does not mean that commencement speakers should only offer platitudes - but if one makes a substantive point they should a) make it well and b) be prepared to defend it. In this case Ms. Nooyi did neither.