A commercial (for shoe retailer Just for Feet by Saatchi & Saatchi, Rochester, N.Y.) in the second half of the Jan. 31 Super Bowl showed a Kenyan runner being forced to wear athletic shoes he did not want. An African-American student in my introductory advertising class described it this way: "Four white hunters track down a black man, drug him, tag him and release him with a tag he tries to shake off but cannot." Another student in the class said, "They forced him to do something that was against his culture."
The message of the commercial was obvious to these students. Postgame coverage by advertising columnists also blasted the commercial for insensitivity.
So how does something like this ever get produced? I find it hard to believe that today anyone in America would deliberately set out to make a racist commercial. It must have been an accident.
But it is an accident that should have been prevented.
Advertising ideas have many possible starting points. It could have been the writer and art director, an account person or the client. Sometimes the idea does not emerge until the director gets involved. But somewhere along the way at Saatchi & Saatchi someone should have simply said, "Time out."
You might also fault the client, but clients turn to advertising agencies for expertise in these matters.
It gets worse. Someone in the clearance process at the Fox Network should have said, "Are you crazy?" After all, Fox had refused to clear at least one proposed Super Bowl commercial for poor taste.
Instead, this was one of the commercials Fox hyped on a news show the day before the game.
Moreover, the Kenyan runner wore "swoosh gear," and the shoes used to tag him appear to be Nike's latest. Did anyone at Nike review and approve this commercial?
No one is perfect. In fact, one of the students in my introductory advertising class said, "That was my favorite commercial."
But it matters that advertisers try to be aware of all the meanings their messages convey. Advertising is about truth. It is about the relationship between a company and its customers. As a dominant form of voice in American culture, it should be about the expression of values and aspirations that move us ahead.
Indeed, the very purpose of advertising is to make things happen faster in the marketplace. Advertising is about what is new.
Racism and sexism are old. The Just for Feet commercial, along with a variety of others we all viewed that Sunday, show the advertising industry needs to move beyond stereotyping restrictions.
The client Just for Feet can escape by never showing that commercial again, and by simply saying, "I'm sorry" when questioned about it.
But what about the advertising professionals, and the accidents to come?
Our advertising industry needs to get serious, and needs to do so now. The usual response by the advertising industry is to convene committees, sponsor internship programs, offer minority scholarships and hold recruiting conferences. These are good things to do.
But these are not enough. Advertising executives need to look at their work and ask, "What are we really saying?" What does it say when an incidental scene in a commercial shows an African-American man sitting alone in an otherwise crowded commuter train? What does it say when a lonely security guard pushes a button to clone a room full of scantily clad women? What does it say when the advertising message is about nothing but creative self-indulgence?
This is not a call for dull advertising. There is plenty of that already. It is a call for better advertising -- advertising that is creative, product centered and culturally insightful.
Better advertising is not an accident. It come from people who pay attention. It come from people who care about advertising and our society. Such people have the courage to question their work and to ask, "Are we sending the wrong message?"
Advertising accidents can be prevented. Each of us has to have the courage to question our pre-conceived notions, and to expand our own view of the world. Advertising should be breaking barriers, not reinforcing them. Let each one of us who loves advertising pledge to do this now.
Editor's note: Just for Feet on Feb. 5 said it withdrew this commercial from future use.
Mr. Eighmey is chairman of the Greenlee School of Journalism & Communication, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa, and a former senior VP in the research and