Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ Music Video Was So Controversial It Made Pepsi Pull a $5 Million Ad

Madonna is no stranger to controversy. Over the course of her long career, she’s frequently pushed boundaries — and raised eyebrows — with her risqué performances, videos, and lyrics. One of the biggest scandals involving the “Justify My Love” singer came in 1989, when she released her video for the song “Like a Prayer.” 

The video, which features burning crosses and a Black Jesus, sparked plenty of outrage at the time, even earning Madonna a rebuke from the Vatican. It also caused Pepsi to scrap a $5 million ad campaign with the pop star. 

Madonna wanted to ‘f*ck a Black guy on the altar,’ video’s director says  

The video for “Like a Prayer” was designed to push people’s buttons. In the clip, Madonna sees a white woman murdered by a group of white men. A Black man who intervenes to help the woman is arrested for the murder instead. Madonna hides in a church while she debates about whether to come forward as a witness. A statue of a saint in the church resembles the arrested man, and he comes to life. Madonna kisses the saint, experiences stigmata, and dances with a gospel choir and in front of a field of burning crosses before eventually going to the police station and declaring the man’s innocence. 

Madonna partnered with director Mary Lambert on the video. In a recent interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Lambert reflected on the process of making “Like a Prayer.” 

“I wanted to explore the correlation between sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy,” Lamber said. The idea of having a Black man play Jesus “came from Madonna telling me she wanted to ‘f*ck a Black guy on the altar,’ ” Lambert added. “I said, ‘Well, why not have it be a Black Jesus? Let’s just go all the way.’ She liked that.”  

The burning crosses in the video were a clear reference to the Ku Klux Klan and the idea that the hate group “could take a cross, which is a holy symbol to a lot of people, and appropriate it in a way to instill fear and horror and promote race hatred. I wanted to turn that on its head.”

The backlash to Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ video was intense 

black and white close up photo of Madonna performing during the Blond Ambition tour
Madonna performs during the 1990 Blond Ambition World 1990 | Rob Verhorst/Redferns

When people got a look at the “Like a Prayer” video, many were outraged. Pope John Paul II even called for people in Italy to boycott Madonna, according to the Hollywood Reporter. 

The video also caused problems for Pepsi, which had recently paid Madonna more than $5 million to appear in an ad for the soda that also featured the song, a single from the singer’s fourth album. The company was also supposed to sponsor her upcoming concert tour. 

The Pepsi ad features Madonna traveling back to her childhood and sees her drinking a Pepsi. The content doesn’t overlap with the “Like a Prayer” video, but come people were still confused. The soft drink company received numerous complaints from consumers who thought the video was part of the Pepsi ad. The conservative American Family Association also called for a Pepsi boycott. 

As a result, Pepsi yanked the lengthy commercial. “When you’ve got an ad that confuses people or concerns people, it just makes sense that that ad goes away,” Tod MacKenzie, a spokesman for Pepsico Inc., told the New York Times at the time. Ultimately, it only aired twice in the United States, according to the Associated Press

Madonna later said her Pepsi ad was pulled some thought her video was ‘inappropriate’  

Madonna, touching her hair, in the early 1980s
Madonna | Ann Clifford/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

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While the “Like a Prayer” killed Madonna’s partnership with Pepsi, she doesn’t appear to have any regrets. In a 2019 Instagram post celebrating the song’s 30-year anniversary and its “inappropriate” video. 

“30 years ago today I released ‘Like a Prayer’ and made a video that caused so much controversy because I kissed a black saint and danced in front of burning crosses! I also made a commercial with PEPSI that was banned because my video was seen as inappropriate,” she wrote. “Happy Birthday to Me and Controversy!”