It took more than three decades, but on Tuesday night (Sept. 12), Madonna’s once-controversial Pepsi ad finally ran during the 2023 MTV VMAs. It’s hard to believe now, but the anodyne 30-second spot in which Madonna teases, “go ahead, make a wish,” and then proceeds to dance on a city street to her then-new single, “Like a Prayer,” with a large group of back-up dancers as she watches herself from a screening room caused a major upset back in 1989.
“34 years ago I made a commercial with Pepsi to celebrate the release of my song ‘Like a Prayer,’” Madonna wrote on X (formerly known as Twitter). “The commercial was immediately canceled when I refused to change any scenes in the video where I was kissing a black saint or burning crosses. So began my illustrious career as an artist refusing to compromise my artistic integrity.”
Along with a link to the refreshed ad celebrating the cola brand’s 125th anniversary — which ends with the message “celebrating 40 years of disrupting the status quo” — Madonna added, “artists are here to disturb the peace.”
The heavily hyped 1989 ad was part of a $5 million deal Pepsi signed with Madonna, whose “Like a Prayer” was slated to soundtrack an ad promoting the singer’s fourth studio album of the same name. The day after the Pepsi ad was released, though, a number of religious organizations, including the Vatican, protested when the song’s official video was released.
In the clip, Madonna sees a white woman being assaulted by a group of white men, later cutting to a Black man getting arrested for the crime after he tries to help the victim. Madonna flees to a church in an attempt to shore up her strength to come forward and tell the truth in the clip rife with religious imagery from the pop icon whose envelope-pushing mash-up of Catholic iconography and provocative images have been a hallmark of her career.
In the clip, Madonna once again fueled outrage with images including her spontaneous stigmata, a scene of the crucifix-wearing singer dances in front of a field of burning crosses and a dream in which she kisses the Black saint/wrongfully arrested man (actor Leon Robinson), who was portraying Saint Martin de Porres, the patron saint of justice and racial harmony.
Though the ad footage was uncharacteristically tame, the spot was promptly shelved due to its association with the hot-button video, with Madonna keeping her huge payday anyway.
Watch the Pepsi ad and the “Like a Prayer” video below.