Just last week, a few of us at Ad Age headquarters were discussing the blatant stereotype parade on display in the Verizon Wireless spot below. Anyone who reads even a tenth of what I write on Ad Age and elsewhere knows I'm not overly sensitive or particularly politically correct. But even I thought the spot might as well have been called "Johnny Goomba, Can You Hear Me Now?" Then, last night, Ad Age received the following letter from Peter Fosco in Pennsylvania wondering just what the heck Verizon was thinking.
Verizon Wireless' stereotype of Italian Americans, unfortunately, does not surprise me since I've seen this depiction many times. I'm sure you are familiar with what I mean: Italian-Americans as ignorant Mafioso types. This is one of the reasons why I rejected "The Sopranos." I knew that it would help pave the way for the ongoing ethnic slur. Verizon's latest television commercial proves that this type of bigotry still exists, but it also reaffirms my belief that I must continue to teach my children the wonderful qualities of their heritage. I can understand how a company would believe that airing this type of ad would not affect its reputation and financial well being. After all, it is so common to see Italian Americans negatively portrayed by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, that our society doesn't think twice when we see garbage such as this.(Rest of the letter and the spot after the jump.)
I've been told to lighten up and to accept the belief that there is a bit of truth to every stereotype. Well, if that is the case, should we let it all out? Should we permit the media to profit off of all the unflattering and nasty stereotypes thought about Blacks, Jews, Asians, Muslims, Irish and Latinos? Ask yourself this question: Would a company stereotype or hyper-exaggerate the characteristics of any other ethnic group without the risk of public scorn, damaged reputation and loss of money? Ask yourself this question on a personal level: Would you like it if your own ethnic group was portrayed in a similar manner?
I can almost understand letting it slide when it is an occasional thing, but it is so pervasive and so over the top that it is becoming ridiculous. Italian Americans are not looking for victim status. We do not complain, in fact we have a very good sense of humor about our idiosyncrasies.
I'll bet most people reading this were not aware that, along with Japanese Americans, thousands of Italian Americans were locked up and sent to relocation camps during WWII. We did not complain because we loved this country and realized it was, and still is, the greatest place on earth.
My beef is not with this country, it's with advertisers, screenwriters, directors, corporate executives, etc, who profit from turning a wonderful culture into a sinister, almost cartoon-like caricature. Of course there will be Italian American actors who will defend and flock to these rolls. Actors are a breed apart and inherently self-absorbed. Why would James Gandolfini, Robert De Niro, and Al Pacino speak out against something that makes them so unbelievably wealthy? Why ruin a good thing?
Speaking of cartoons, after purchasing Steven Spielberg's "Shark Tale" for my children, I sent it back directly to him. Somehow, he managed to personify violent sharks into Italian Americans. It was very well done. He wouldn't pull that off with any other group, but very crafty nonetheless. In my letter, I told him how I admired his charitable work and advocacy for his ethnic group. I also told him how disappointed I was with his hypocrisy. He should know better about the slippery slope of defamation and stereotyping. Verizon Wireless probably knew better, but figured they would field some complaints and wait for it to blow over. Perhaps in their next commercial, they could pay homage to Antonio Meucci and Guglielmo Marconi for laying the foundations for the telecommunications industry.