In the crucible of racial politics, Denny's should stick to waffles

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MARKETER:Denny's

AGENCY:Citigate Communications and Chisholm-Mingo Group, New York

AD REVIEW RATING: Two and a half stars

So much in this world is governed by chance, random occurrences that end up determining the directions of people's lives.

Or maybe it isn't random. Maybe it's fate, or God's plan. But one way or another critical outcomes so often hinge on happenstance: A woman spied across a crowded bus, leading to a marriage, or breaking up one. A summer job that turns into a career. Missing a plane, that crashes.

Or how about this one: Owning a restaurant chain, and getting caught giving shabby treatment to black clientele.

That happened to Denny's, the family restaurateur, and nothing has been the same since. First was the scandal with all the accompanying corporate embarrassment and shame, then the boycott, then the litigation, and through all the taint of being a Jim Crow holdout in a Michael Jordan world.

Such events have a way of focusing your thinking, and, for the past three years, Denny's has been thinking an awful lot about race.

This includes all of the obvious remedial activity: transforming the boilerplate corporate non-discrimination policy into a living watchword; using advertising and public relations to woo back disaffected African-Americans; and generally expressing contrition at every public opportunity.

But now, it seems, Denny's has gone beyond apologizing. Having landed on its ass in the thicket of racial politics, it has decided to stay there. A company known hitherto for its chicken parmigiana is mounting a crusade for racial understanding. A TV campaign from Citigate Communications, New York, with the help of the Chisholm-Mingo Group, will promote not the waffle-and-sausage special but a national dialogue about race.

Which is a hot one. As if we weren't already a society obsessed with race, and frustrated by it, and cowed by it. The fact is, we are in a constant state of dialogue--or at least multiple monologues, overlapping more than they intersect.

So, God bless 'em, here comes the nation's foremost guilt-ridden family restaurant chain, with the zeal of a convert, to foster intersection.

"Good or bad," one beautiful (in an acceptably Caucasoid way) lady says to begin one spot, "we live in a time of political correctness. Sometimes it makes it hard to communicate without worrying you're offending someone. So here's a simple idea to help: common courtesy. Common sense. Treat other people like you want to be treated. May not be political, but it is correct."

Then the tagline: "Diversity. It's about all of us."

Another spot, with a Latino actor, reminds us that there are "120 different languages spoken in the state of Missouri," so why can't we all get along?

These are, of course, noble sentiments and perfectly valid in a namby-pamby, "Ebony & Ivory" sort of way. And maybe any rational discussion on the subject, however Pollyannaish, is better than none. The political-correctness line comes close to making an important observation about how nobody dares speak his mind.

But ultimately it pulls its punch and therefore seems trivial.

And one spot, in which a gentle guy in dreads gives whites permission to notice he is black, does far worse.

"Some flowers are roses. Some are daisies," he says. "One's not automatically better than another. Just different. America is a garden. The more variety the better."

Ahhh, a garden! A patchwork! A rainbow of colors forming a broad arc of surpassing beauty! E-bon-yyy and iiii-vo-ryyy . . .

But if the botanical simile isn't clear enough, he also articulates the thought as a specific moral guideline: "Noticing a person's color doesn't make you a racist," he says. "Acting like it matters does."

The problem is, the whole problem is, that's not true. Color does matter, for the very reason the political-correctness spot almost identifies: Americans of all hues are so hog-tied by suspicion and resentment and fear and guilt that what color we are absolutely colors how we relate to one another.

The daisy is trying to talk to the rose about whatever, but it can't help wondering whether the rose likes daisies, hates daisies, is sensitive to any mention of white petals. And vice versa.

That isn't racism; it's real life in the garden. And calling it racism only makes the problem worse.

Therein the danger of this ministry of contrition. Bringing about meaningful discussion of these enormously complicated, emotionally loaded issues requires more than good intentions, more than lame pieties, more than the moral courage of crusaders anointed by fate.

It requires, above all, intellectual honesty. Without it they're better off serving waffles to customers of every diverse kind, and otherwise to just shut up.

Copyright January 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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