Jason E. Kaplan
Momo Pixel, pictured in her apartment

Momo Pixel aims to shake up the ad industry.

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Momo Pixel wants you to know: She’s not egotistical like Kanye West. “But I know myself, and I know when something’s good,” says the 27-year-old Louisville, Kentucky native, who wears a shock of bubble-gum pink hair and a pair of beaded glasses she designed. “I’m strategic in a cool way.”

After graduating from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Pixel — she changed her legal last name to her primary art medium two years ago —  eventually moved into her current position as an art director at Wieden + Kennedy, where she has styled ads for such major brands as KFC and Powerade.

But perhaps her biggest claim to fame has been Hair Nah, a web game in which players become a black woman who swats white hands grabbing her hair. The video went viral, attracting writeups in Newsweek, Vice and Buzzfeed. 

We caught up with Pixel in her Goose Hollow studio, a colorful space that resembles an arcade, complete with a game console.  The ad industry has a diversity problem, Pixel says. Mad-Men-style agencies struggle to keep pace with their diverse, web-obsessed audiences. Her goal is to change the game.  (Interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.)

BD2F0731Momo Pixel in her apartment | Purchase this photo

Why do you think Hair Nah was so effective? 

I was like, “I can make a simple game that makes a statement.” You literally are just swatting hands. There’s nothing else. That’s why it’s effective. It’s a simple point. Straight to it. That translates to brands, too. They’re always trying to get their message across, and they’re always trying to do the absolute most. You could just do something simple that’s dope.

What else does the ad industry get wrong? 

It’s the same stuff over and over. Oh, you’re giving out free stickers and drinks. Oh, it’s a party with artists that we like. TV? When is the last time you watched TV? They still say we’re going to make a TV ad and put it on all the social media. 

A lot of brands skim over and generalize who people are. Millennials! They are all like this. I would love to see them start targeting niche groups. There’s a whole community that loves anime hardcore and have been loving it for a minute. They would love to see brands do more stuff that appeals to them. 

So what strategy should brands pursue?

You don’t see them taking risks and doing crazy stuff. I think that’s why KFC [one of Pixel’s W+K clients] is doing so well. They sent a chicken sandwich to the moon. They made sunscreen that smelled like chicken. There are so many people who thrive right now because they’re just making short content. People have super short attention spans. If we are paying attention to something, it has to be something we’ve never seen before. Black Panther killed the game because we’ve never seen black people in the spotlight. To me, Black Panther didn’t just show black people in a really positive light — it shows how we usually are.

What about brands using virtual and augmented reality? People must pay attention to that. 

Yeah, if done right, but it’s always something lame. No, I don’t want to look at the interior of a car. It just doesn’t make sense.  

BD2F0787Pixel’s bead art inspires her digital creations. | Purchase this photo

What makes sense?

Let’s say I’m a car company, and I want to do something with VR. I would create a story. People love stories. You could follow the story of a family that’s tiny, that lives inside of a car. You’d see everything from a different perspective, right? Little things we don’t pay attention to would be huge to them. You’d see the inner workings of the car. It’d be an easy way for people to see how you made the car, but in a cool way. 

Why don’t we see more tiny car dwellers coming out of ad agencies? 

Because they’re still run by old white people. It’s just how the government and a lot of things are. They aren’t keeping up with the consciousness of the world. The internet was introduced, and people who didn’t have voices have voices now. They don’t keep up with that. 

A lot of times they keep employing people who are just like them. A lot of ad places hire from certain schools or from certain programs. If you think about privilege and access — who’s always had access to that? It’s a certain kind of group. There’s a whole group of people who never had that because of the way the world is set up. They’re just as dope. Advertising is always looking for the next big thing, and a lot of those things come from people who ain’t white.

Has Wieden+Kennedy adapted to the times?

Being honest: No, I don’t think it has, but it is more diverse than other agencies. I’m not about to lie and say it’s perfect, because it’s not. The floor that I work on isn’t that diverse. I’m still only one of two black female creatives. 

But at least in rethinking ads, they are trying and changing. I think more brands need to understand that culture is different, the internet is fast, and they should just hop on board and go with it. Once that happens, more agencies, including Wieden + Kennedy, can create better and different ads.

BD2F0567Pixel has contributed to ad campaigns for KFC and Old Spice. | Purchase this photo

But sometimes brands hop on the bandwagon of social-justice movements, and it doesn’t work out. I’m thinking of Pepsi’s Black Lives Matter fiasco. What’s your take on brands as tools for social change?

Trying to use oppression for financial gain, for selfish, unhelpful pride — how is that not evil? It’s almost as if people have no issue making money off the suffering of others. I don’t understand how low Pepsi had to stoop to do that spot. 

Even if these ad agencies actually wanted to help, many aren’t diverse enough to do things right. They don’t have the people who know the full scope, history or can empathize. So why do it if it’s inauthentic? 

What ad agencies are getting it right?

I don’t admire any of them. There are small agencies doing amazing work. They are solo creators who do more creative work than entire agencies. 

But Wieden + Kennedy is still on top for a lot of things. I love the “Nothing Beats a Londoner” campaign. And the recent Studio Ghibli-esque spot Wieden + Kennedy did for Travel Oregon was gorgeous. 

And whoever is doing Arby’s social media work is a genius. 

Travel Oregon’s studio Ghibli-inspired ad. 

Really? Arby’s?

Yeah. It’s all Facebook and Instagram. They literally make anime characters out of cardboard and other cartoons and upload it. They’ll put a little funny line under it. People just pay attention because this stuff is hilarious.

A version of this article appears in the June 2018 issue of Oregon Business. To subscribe, click here.