A couple of weeks ago the news media carried a story covering a Microsoft advertisement which was used in Poland. The image had originally been used in The United States and showed three office workers, one of them black. The Polish version of the image had a white guy’s face superimposed on the black man. The image editor appeared to have forgotten about his hands which were the original colour giving the game away.
Accusations of racism ensued and Poland was branded a racist nation. However, branding a whole nation racist is itself a racist generalisation so let’s just think this through.
Microsoft ran an advert in a country with a diverse, ethically mixed population and wanted to run the same advert in another country with a predominantly white population.
When faced with these sorts of issues it is useful to alter aspects of the scenario slightly to challenge assumptions and see how this changes our reaction. So let’s say that the company was Chinese and they were selling to Kenya. Let’s say that the original image had three Chinese people. Would it be racist to change the image to one showing predominantly black people?
What if the Chinese company wanted to use the image in The United States but the U.S. marketing guys complained that the people in the image were not sufficiently ethnically diverse. The Chinese might respond that one guy was a Wega, one a Han Chinese and the other a Tibetan. Who’s the racist? The Chinese for not including a black guy or the Americans for thinking that all Orientals look the same?
Could Microsoft have run the same image showing only one black guy in an advert used in Nigeria? If they had, might this not be construed as lazy neo-imperialism?
The real question is this: Is it racist for a company to adjust the ethnic mix of characters in advertising to suit the target country? In my view it is not, it happens all the time. Advertisers design images so that the target audience will empathise with the people in the commercials and for this they try to reflect the ethnic make up of each country.
Other times advertisers might also try to project an image that people aspire to and this can mean that the people portrayed are of a different group than the target audience. An example of this was Australian TV advertising in the 1970s where English accents were used because they were considered more up market.
Nationality, race and ethnicity are all exploited to produce an image that the seller believes is attractive to the target audience. We all have prejudices and advertising executives make conscious attempts to exploit our unconscious prejudices. We believe that German cars are superior so Citroen tell us that the new C5 is “’Unmistakably German”.
We believe that Scots are prudent and so banks use Scottish accent for their commercials and who would dream of selling spaghetti source without an outrageous Italian accent?
There is an enormous block of hypocrisy on all sides of the racism debate and too many people scream
racism as a cover for their own prejudice. This ranges from the supposedly anti-racists liberals treating Africans like children to the automatic condemnation of all things “little England”.
Darcus Howe fell into this trap during a BBC Radio 4 discussion with Joan Rivers in 2005. He casually slandered Ms. Rivers by saying that the word “black” offended her. This absurd insult was vehemently denied by Ms. Rivers but what was interesting about this episode was that she picked up on it at all. Racists insults such as these are often ignored and the accusation of racism sticks by default.
Too often accusations of racism against organisations are met by an attempt to distance the organisation from the supposed perpetrators. Presumably this is done because of the fear that the organisation will be branded as racist but this distancing means implicit acceptance of racism and only serves to reinforce the public perception that the incident itself was racist. In the case of Microsoft and the Polish advert this is by no means clear.
Racism has become a taboo in modern society which probably stems from the recognition of the evil of the African slave trade and The Holocaust. The feeble minded have picked up on the necessity to be anti-racists and interpreted this as a prejudice against white people and a knee jerk accusation of racism whenever they hear the word “black”.
I enjoy BBC, Radio 4 comedy but am often surprised at the vitriol of Jeremy Hardy and Markus Brigstock when they attack some poor soul who they have deemed a racist. These two admirable comedians fall into the same trap as the racists: The automatic and prejudice vilification of an individual because of an assumed membership of a hated group. The audience appears to laughs and claps energetically but this is not from mirth but a desperate attempt to distance themselves from the target of the abuse.
I am reminded of a sinister piece of video showing Sadam Hussein when president of Iraq. He sits smoking a cigar while casually ordering individuals to be taken away by security guards. The remaining individuals become frenetic in their efforts to show their allegiance to Sadam.
She’s a witch, he’s a communist, you’re a racists! We invent groups to exclude people more than we do to include them. In the Christian bible Mathew asks: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?”
The answer, of course, is to distract attention.
Irrespective of whether Poles as a group are racist or not the furore over the Microsoft advert is not evidence either way. It is business as usual in the advertising industry met by prejudiced people deflecting scrutiny of their own views by publicly accusing other.
As if the witch hunt of racism is not enough a new prejudice is evolving along with a new terminology of persecution. We are now called to hate all those who remain sceptical about climate change and so, as we drive our cars, we can assuage our guilt by hurling abuse at the Chelsea Tractors and the Gas Guzzlers.
Humans! – Hypocrites the lot of them.