Recently while in channel-surf mode, I stumbled upon a commercial that made me laugh out loud. It opens with an overhead shot of a basketball game on a rundown urban court. The music is pumpin' and we hear static from a police radio in the background. Three players who've got all the moves stop their game long enough to swagger in front of a camera and extol the virtues of a new soda called Turbo Sports Seven. Menacing and tough, it is apparent that these dudes haven't spent much time in anybody's classroom. Their leader brags (as close as I can get it), "This here a freight train. Him named Pablo." Their macho poses seem to boast that life has been rough-and they wouldn't have it any other way. Underclassed, underemployed, undereducated, etc. But luckily-and here the leader holds up a can-they all drink Turbo Sports Seven!
Suddenly, we hear "Cut!" and an unseen director yells, "Genius, you're holding the can upside down!" The cool basketball players fall out of character and become frustrated actors. In positively British accents, they upbraid the director for interrupting them. "You can't speak to me that way!" one actor de-claims, adding, "I played Hamlet at Cambridge!" In a fit of pique, another tosses the basketball over his shoulder and asks, "What's my motivation?" The commercial ends with the third actor threatening to head to his trailer, while a bottle of Sprite appears with the title: "Image is nothing."
Sprite made clever use of a situation that African Americans have bemoaned for decades: Images in print and broadcast advertising rarely attempt to intersect with the reality of our lives or experiences. Over and over again, certain attitudes and stances are continually put forth as The Black Experience. And those images distance us from others, separating us based on superficial racial characteristics-even though we claim to know better. For African Americans, this denigration in art began in the Age of Minstrelsy. For more than a hundred years, troupes of caucasians in burnt cork and woolly wigs toured the country, caricaturing black speech patterns and dances. For many whites, this was the first image they held of blacks. Numerous tobacco and household products featured minstrels and small children in comically outlandish situations. The tradition was so strong that even African American entertainers were forced to "black up" if they wanted to perform in American theater. And those images were exported around the world. Minstrel troupes are recorded in as faraway places as Australia. In Southeast Asia, Darkie toothpaste sported a minstrel's picture; only recently was the name changed. Unfortunately, the legacy remains-and may be seen in Hollywood's perennial situation comedies.
Much of our current advertising remains segregated and filled with racial stereotypes. If you don't agree, just try the following experiment. Sit for an hour during any regularly scheduled television program. In the commercials, how many are segregated? (Meaning, casts of one racial group.) How many are specific to one ethnic group?
While writing this, I looked around the house at magazines and newspapers, and I flipped around the TV and listened to the radio. I even took an informal survey of products in my kitchen cabinet. After all, these were the first mini-storyboards, in a sense, on the sides of cans and boxes, that predated broadcast advertising. I searched for images re-called from childhood: Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and the Cream of Wheat chef. These kindly relatives (or servants, I
wasn't sure which) have done so well by their brands that, periodically, they receive PC facelifts and other adjustments.
What I found is that not only African Americans, but Native Americans, Asians, and Latinos also find their images appropriated to fit a way of thinking that is foreign to their own culture and sense of self. Back to my kitchen cabinet. On the bottom shelf was Calumet baking powder's
elegantly designed red, blue and silver can with a Native American. Guess what color the Native American is? Yep. Now, I was born in Oklahoma and I happen to know that most Native Americans don't appreciate that kind of imagery.
On a more positive note, Tempo's seafood bake topping sported the words New England Style and featured a bearded man in front of a lighthouse. His hearty smile and rainslicker indicated the salty Cape Cod fisherman who is self-sufficient and plainspoken. Aha, I thought, an example of an image that anybody can relate to. A caucasian male. Two cans of tuna revealed Chicken of the Sea's little blonde mermaid waving a magical wand, while Creamette's elbow macaroni logo depicts a rosy-cheeked smiling girl whose only worry is whether or not the bow on her head is tight enough. Clabber Girl baking soda shows a demure lass holding a plate of biscuits, while in the background a mother serenely plucks feathers>12 Dinwiddie <10 from a turkey as two small children look on. Even though the family is in modest circumstances, everyone is smiling, happy, and contented. A kitten plays with a feather and a toy horse is parked next to the little boy. Again, these latter examples held no clues as to the characters' race.
At this point, you're probably wondering what you've been missing in your own kitchen cabinet. I also found a carton of Uncle Ben's blackeyed peas & rice. On the side of the box, Uncle Ben is absolutely distinguished looking! His gray hair and gentle smile remind me of my late great-grandfather, who worked for more than 30 years as a Pullman porter. William F. Martin, or Papoo, would not be at all offended by this benign comparison. He took pride in his backbreaking work, saved his money, and went to church. Maybe Uncle Ben is just a working stiff, like Papoo? I turned the box over; there was a colorful mural depicting such antebellum images as a plantation house, cotton bolls, catfish, a steamboat and the silhouette of a Southern belle with parasol in hand. I no longer had to question whether Uncle Ben was a relative or a servant. Simply juxtaposing his image against the front of the box, I came to the same conclusion that Papoo would have: Uncle Ben had been a slave!
I then took my search to newspaper ads. Honestly, the local Tallahassee Democrat's articles are more biased than the advertising. For the most part, African Americans aren't represented in any appreciable numbers-even though we make up more than a quarter of the local population. But if you find an article on teenage pregnancy or crime, guess who is exclusively pictured? Only African Americans, despite the statistics that tell us otherwise.
I digress to make a point. Any ad exec knows that the medium is just as important as the message. How can I expect an ad agency to be more sensitive to my feelings than the paper where I look at the ads? So long as such racial differentiation is deemed socially acceptable, there won't be any appreciable change in the climate. And there won't be any significant change in advertising using minorities until we are perceived as having more economic clout-and being touchier.
After all, I subscribe to Vanity Fair and Time magazines, despite the paucity of African American images in ads; the most I counted in recent issues was five. Now, don't get me wrong. My Ebony and Emerge aren't chockful of caucasians either. I suppose it's simply a reflection of the society we live in. Magazines and commercials are segregated. Is it any wonder that so are our neighborhoods? An even larger question is, does one factor feed on the other?
On a positive note (yes, I am searching!), the Benetton ads stand out in memory, where racial differences were celebrated as vibrant and beautiful, on billboards and in magazines. Surely, there will be more of this type of advertising? The real question is-did the ads sell clothes?
It seems that, in the '90s, advertisers and clients have replaced the servant/slave with the sports figure. I suppose that's a good thing, but let's have a little more diversity. Sure, rocket scientists don't sell tennis shoes. But there are African Americans in every walk of life. Lawyers, cooks, physicians, housewives, engineers, astronauts, environmentalists-you name it, we're doing it. Is it too much to ask that we see ourselves reflected here and there-as most white Am-ericans do? Believe me, I'm not asking anyone to put Tiger Woods on TV without his golf clubs. Let him play the game he's good at. Just let him sell his products without having to put on an act. Without having to act "black," whatever that is.
Who are the advertisers really trying to reach? Are they using African Americans to confirm other societal attitudes that are bigger than any product? If so, then our image problems are more deep-seated than any ad campaign. The "Black Experience" is more than entertainment and sports. There are millions of ordinary folk out there, trying to make an honest living, who happen to be African American. I see them all the time, and I sure would like>14 Dinwiddie <12 to see them looking out from ads for every kind of
So, thank you Sprite. I don't know if your campaign will be successful or not, but there's one question I can answer: Guess what brand of soda I'll be buying from now on?
Even though Boss Tweed gave the world Tammany Hall, I rarely see Irish cops depicted as dishonest or innately corruptible. Why? Be-cause it is a lie. My Italian brothers are allowed to be priests and maf-iosi, lawyers and doctors. While most nonblacks did not grow up Ozzie and Harriet style in Dennis the Menace suburbs, still there was such a plethora of images to choose from-from the antics of I Love Lucy to The Honeymooners. Embedded in American culture are certain attitudes about people that will not die. Here in Tallahassee, the Florida State football team calls itself the Seminoles. But if they were to take a good look at who the Seminoles were and are (the name itself means "run away"), FSU might seriously consider renaming its team. So, there is a kind of myopia about racial stereotypes and attitudes that pervades our culture.
My first images of black people on TV came from The Little Rascals and Our Gang. An important part of every day for my sister and me was sitting in front of the b&w TV to watch Buckwheat, Alfalfa and the rest of the gang survive their own worst feats. We laughed out loud at Alfalfa's singing, Buckwheat's hair and Froggy's voice. It never occurred to us-until much later, when we were grown-that we were part of the joke. The white little Rascals were merely kids, with childish pranks, while Stymie and Buckwheat were there to be laughed at-not with.
It is that sense of separateness that chokes so many of our children. I have listened to people of color complain about their depiction in the media, then quote line for line the offensive words and laugh. Many years later, watching an episode where Stymie goes to the store to pick up dinner food, it finally hit me. Unable to read, Stymie asks his friends if he can taste all the wares in the store, until he finds the food his mother sent him to get. "That ain't it!" He responds to item after item. Finally, he tastes something, grins, and proclaims, "That's it!" The gang all turn to look at the sack that the sample came from. It's manure.
So that was it. It wasn't until many years later, when I read E.L. Doctorow's lyrical book Ragtime, that I understood why the Little Rascals had caught me unawares. They do, after all, represent the American Dream: a rainbow of kids frolicking and learning about life from each other. Learning about social class and sex and how to have fun. The problem is, the black kid always gets the same role.
When the first civil rights photos came in from Birmingham, I was glued to my TV set. Why were the policemen beating people? Why were the firemen wetting them with hoses? Slowly, it dawned on me that the policemen were white and the people they were attacking were black. That is when I came into race consciousness. But it was still confusing, since my own father was a policeman. I wondered what would happen to him in Birmingham? Would the police attack him-or the black people?
Television offered few images that I could relate to. For awhile, my hero was John "Boy" Walton. A big mountain family-without a racist word-living out their lives surrounded by barriers to their dreams. Moving to Hollywood, and working in the film and television business for five years, I discovered that blackness was still a source of humor for most white writers. Instead of learning, they made fun of what they did not understand. This was deeply painful to me. A black movie will have guns; a white movie will have heroes. A black movie will have swear words and loose women; a white movie will be lofty and protect its women. If Linda Hamilton had been a black character in Terminator 2 she probably would have been sodomized in the asylum-as a white woman, she simply went mad. Somehow, the psychosexual imagery of the black woman in our culture always involves brutality of a kind that does not encompass her white sister.
It hits you when you realize that you are identifying with the white leading character. The black person is only there to show the normalness of the white people. And suddenly, you watch movies differently. You remember that in Star Wars you don't see black people until you are in the dankest, darkest hole in space. You remember that Wesley Snipes and Danny Glover take a pay cut when there's no gun in their hands, no swear words at their lips. You are being distanced from your own image of yourself because it is so painful to believe that anybody could think that you are like that. And you laugh louder; otherwise someone might think that you think you are that caricature. You speak with a different voice, you avoid your Africanness.
Well, it doesn't work.
Michael Dinwiddie, an assistant professor and playwright-in-residence at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, formerly worked in ad-vertising and as a