It’s been 12 months since Juvenile’s music video “Vax That Thang Up” reprised the rap legend’s familiar 1999 hit “Back That Thang Up” for a pandemic-era audience — and, in the process, drew a mixture of praise and controversy for its portrayal of Black women.
The video, and the agency that created it, are back in the spotlight after earning a place among the winners at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity last month.
The client, dating app BLK, used the video to ease vaccine hesitancy among the Black community. But as it did upon initial release, the ad is inspiring a range of opinions among that community.
“It won because it was a unique way to talk about getting vaccinations, and we have to acknowledge that. Was it everybody’s cup of tea? No,” said Derek Walker, owner of South Carolina agency Brown and Browner.
Walker pushed back on the effort a year ago because of the way it featured Black women twerking in the service of public health. “My fear is that, come the next awards cycle, we will give this an award because it fits the stereotypes. It fits the comfortable part of seeing Black people dance,” he explained at the time.
That his prediction came to fruition – the campaign took home a Bronze Lion for health and wellness advertising in Cannes — is something in which Walker takes little solace.
On the contrary, it underscores a larger problem in the ad industry and what it chooses to see as good and bad work. According to Walker and other colleagues in the Black creative community, awarding the work may well send a message that supporting stereotypes is acceptable.
To that end, Walker isn’t softening his stance. “I’m not going to change my position. I wouldn’t have done that ad,” he reiterated.
Walker initially spoke up out of fear that other agencies, particularly white creatives, might consider “Vax That Thang Up” a “blueprint” for reaching Black audiences. That message appears to have been heard.
“My white friends are acknowledging they know now that they shouldn’t try to do what was done,” Walker reported.
But there may still be some unforeseen implications. Though the video was done by a multicultural agency, it shows, according to Walker, that “Black people aren’t immune to stereotypes and tropes. We’re just not.”
And if they aren’t, it’s conceivable that not every white agency will consider such work off-limits, either.
BLK was one of a number of dating apps with which the Biden administration partnered last year as the administration sought to jumpstart COVID-19 vaccinations. What made “Vax That Thang Up” stand out was that it targeted Black adults under 40 — the group most likely to avoid the COVID shot, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The campaign tallied some impressive numbers. Daters were able to filter potential matches by vaccination status, and half a million shared their vaccine status on their profiles, according to the campaign video BLK and its agency submitted to Cannes.
Users could also book vaccine appointments through the app, although the number who did so was not disclosed. After generating 3 billion media impressions on its first day alone, the campaign went on to amass 7 billion impressions, including some 700 articles and 70 broadcast segments.
The YouTube video has racked up 3.3 million views (about 200,000 more than last year at this time), along with roughly 17,000 likes, an increase of 2,000. Dislikes also grew, by 5,000.
It was among a slew of diversity-oriented creative projects that won in Cannes. The awards show admitted that it missed the mark on the overall diversity of its jury earlier this year, following criticism from the Brazilian contingent. Of the 22-member jury pool in the health and wellness category, only one juror was Black. Eleven were women.
Walker, who stressed that he is addressing his critique toward the BLK work as opposed to the people behind it, is broadening his message this year.
“We tend to talk about this as a Black or a white creative doing this. No,” he stressed. “This is a message for all creatives. Look at how you lean into stereotypes. Because when the pushback came, those creatives were surprised that they were getting pushback from some of the more senior Black people in advertising.”
Many non-healthcare products still depict Black people dancing in commercials. “And they don’t mean any harm – although, when you have Black people dancing from Kraft macaroni and cheese, you gotta wonder,” Walker quipped.
That said, the BLK ad’s depiction of that trope “may set us back,” he cautioned. While change is happening, it shows that “we still are seeing the stereotypes push forward.”
Many people on social media told the brand as much. “Some practices may seem natural because they’ve been done for so long, but they should stop,” Walker continued. “And this dancing in commercials needs to be appropriate.”
Despite his warnings, Walker doesn’t expect such work to become the exclusive province of diverse creatives, especially now that an influential awards jury has deemed the idea a powerful one for health. Now that the genie’s out of the bottle, adland may have no choice but to embrace it.
“If it’s good enough for a Black agency to do, it’s got to be good enough for a white agency,” he noted. “We can’t be offended by this thing. Those folks that weren’t offended by it have to live by this. So when white agencies and white creators decide to do something like this, if you supported this spot, you have to live with supporting what other people do. That’s the mirror that nobody wants held up.”
Nor, he added, should anyone be surprised if those white agencies don’t employ Black people to create said spots.
“That’s equality,” he said. “And whether we like it or not, that’s when we’re truly equal. If one group can do this, and we applaud it, then we have to allow other groups to do it also. If it matters who made it, then there’s something wrong with all of us.”
Walker wasn’t any less outraged that the BLK video was created by a multicultural shop. “I find it offensive no matter who does it,” he said, noting that he absorbed some backlash from those whom he had criticized last year.
“This was a learning lesson for everyone,” he said. “That’s what good art does. Art sometimes challenges you to think and talk.”
Atlanta multicultural agency Majority, which created the video, did not respond to a request for comment to this article.