Food giant PepsiCo is now fizzing in damage-control mode after the company’s president likened the U.S. to a middle finger.

The remarks by Indra Nooyi, an India-born woman who also serves as PepsiCo’s chief financial officer, came during a speech Sunday to graduates at Columbia Business School in New York, some of whom took offense as an anti-American attack.

“I’m going to take a look at how the United States is perceived in global business,” Nooyi told the audience, saying she’d use the human hand as a model.

Nooyi then went on to say the five major continents in the world can each be represented by a finger on the hand.

She said Africa was the pinkie, because of its place on the world’s stage, having yet to catch up to her sister continents.

“And yet, when our little finger hurts, it affects the whole hand,” Nooyi stated.

She said our thumb is Asia, “strong, powerful, and ready to assert herself as a major player on the world’s economic stage.”

Europe was compared to the index finger, the cradle of democracy which “pointed the way for Western civilization and the laws we use in conducting global business.”

South America, including Latin America, was likened to the ring finger, symbolizing love and commitment to another person.


PepsiCo president Indra Nooyi

She said her analogy “leaves the long, middle finger for North America, and in particular, the United States. As the longest of the fingers, it really stands out. The middle finger anchors every function that the hand performs and is the key to all of the fingers working together efficiently and effectively. This is a really good thing, and has given the U.S. a leg up in global business since the end of World War I.

“However, if used inappropriately – just like the U.S. itself, the middle finger can convey a negative message and get us in trouble,” Nooyi said, noting she would not demonstrate, nor was she looking for volunteers. “Discretion being the better part of valor, I think I’ll pass.”

She continued:

 

What is most crucial to my analogy of the five fingers as the five major continents, is that each of us in the U.S. – the long, middle finger – must be careful that when we extend our arm in either a business or political sense, we take pains to assure we are giving a hand, not the finger. Sometimes this very difficult. Because the U.S. – the middle finger – sticks out so much, we can send the wrong message unintentionally.

Unfortunately, I think this is how the rest of the world looks at the U.S. right now. Not as part of the hand – giving strength and purpose to the rest of the fingers – but instead, scratching our nose and sending a far different signal.

Some at Columbia’s commencement were stunned.

“My family had flown a great distance and spent a large sum of money to come celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and were quite disturbed that the president and CFO of a U.S.-based company made such a comparison at a business-school ceremony,” one graduate, Wes Martin, told the New York Sun.

Others have expressed their outrage at Nooyi on Internet blogs.

“We have American men and women dying to help preserve your right to give them your middle finger,” wrote Susanna L. Cornett. “I can’t in good conscience continue to support your doing so.”

“She seeks to impart her opinion that the United States’ light of freedom should be put under a bushel basket because terrorists, tyrants and their ‘pointer finger’ European sympathizers find it offensive,” said Sam Sweden.

“As to the notion of the middle finger as the equivalent of the indispensable superpower, please,” wrote Tom McLaughlin, a Columbia graduate. “Every one of Ms. Nooyi’s listeners knows that the middle finger is not in any sense ‘the key to all the fingers working together efficiently and effectively’ but rather a very definite, very American, symbol of something else. Perhaps … PepsiCo should do a Google search on ‘middle finger’ … to see how many treatises on anatomy and physiology are returned.”

As criticism of the speech has increased on the Internet throughout the week, Nooyi has since issued a statement about the matter, insisting she was not trying to be anti-American.

 

The point of my analogy was to emphasize America’s leadership position. Equally critical is the need for each of us as citizens to take a constructive role in whatever we choose to do in life to ensure the U.S. continues as the world’s “helping hand.”

Unfortunately, my remarks at Columbia University were misconstrued and depicted in a different context as unpatriotic. Although nothing could be further from the truth, I regret any confusion or concern that I may have inadvertently created. As I shared with the audience at Columbia, this country that I am proud and honored to call home is a “promised land” that I love dearly. I would never say or do anything to detract from our great nation and its people who have done so much for so many, including myself.

Nooyi’s clarification, however, did little to quell the criticism, resulting in Pepsico’s president issuing a “sincere apology,” late yesterday.

 

Following my remarks to the graduating class of Columbia University’s Business School in New York City, I have come to realize that my words and examples about America unintentionally depicted our country negatively and hurt people.

I appreciate the honest comments that have been shared with me since then, and am deeply sorry for offending anyone. I love America unshakably – without hesitation – and am extremely grateful for the opportunities and support our great nation has always provided me.

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. Please accept my sincere apologies.

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