Provocative Racial Imagery in Ads: Where to Draw the Line

And Have Recent Oreo and Sony Spots Crossed it?

By Published on .

Poor Randy Jackson. He's the "American Idol" judge sandwiched between hardhearted Simon Cowell and softy Paula Abdul. He's also the one who says "dawg" -- sort of an urban version of "dude," uttered by some black people, white people trying too hard to sound cool and, to read the ravings on the Internet, "too-white" black people desperately striving for sufficient negritude.

We have no opinion on Randy Jackson's blackness bona fides, although you can mark us down as brokenhearted that anyone is still keeping score. There is, however, a lot of online speculation about his hip-hopisms, namely that he's trying to cover up his Uncle Tom-ness with some verbal bling.

Sigh. Can't we all just get along?

But that's the way things are, so the AdReview staff is just amazed, under the circumstances, that Jackson's a frontman for Nabisco's Oreo cookies.

Just like racial epithet
Oreos! The cookies with the creme filling sandwiched between chocolate wafers. Black on the outside, white on the inside. Just like the racial epithet says.

We'd be less astonished if the campaign -- in which Jackson serves as judge for a new Oreo jingle -- were intentionally confronting the jackasses who trade in such internecine insults. But there's no such attitude evident. Moreover -- and most bizarre of all -- when criticism of racism surfaced recently, all parties publicly disclaimed awareness of the double entendre.

Incredible. No racism is afoot here, but someone's either a liar or a fool.
Engage Garfield directly in his new blog.
Engage Garfield directly in his new blog.

Of course, there are worse things to be.

An Aryan princess
Consider TBWA's Dutch campaign for the Sony's PSP portable game player. In an attempt to dramatize the introduction of a white-encased PSP in addition to the familiar black one, it shows a white woman and a black woman in various scenes of physical confrontation. In one, the black model seems to have the advantage; in another, the white. That one has just been pulled -- also over racism accusations -- and no surprise there. The white model is an Aryan princess wearing a cross that's very KKK.

An obnoxious stunt, but it isn't racist, either.

You can invoke race without committing racism. You can say, for instance, that American blacks suffer disproportionately from high blood pressure. You can even make observations that fuel hateful stereotypes without being yourself racist. To wit: Blacks are incarcerated, in percentage terms, far more than whites. It's not a happy fact, but it's a fact -- one central to all the dispassionate sociological research aimed at untangling the pathologies of poverty, racism and crime.

Inflammatory race talk
The point being that inflammatory race talk is not only not necessarily racism, it is often the opposite of racism.

But what about in advertising, which is certainly not social science? Apart from demographically narrowing down your user base, why invoke race at all? Why, especially, toy with its imagery?

The answer is that it triggers emotion, which so little advertising does. If racial imagery can confront consumers' conflicted feelings about race without exploiting or disparaging anyone, and the brand gets some attention, where's the harm?

Trick question. There is harm, because provocative racial imagery absent any direct relevance to the brand is by definition exploitive -- of the consumer's emotions and of the tortured social history of race. The wounds of slavery and Jim Crow are still too raw for anyone to scratch at them for the purpose of selling video games. It's not racist for Sony to pit white against and black in ambiguous scenes suggesting hatred and violence, but it sure is sleazy.

That's why the PSP campaign is uncalled for. As for the Oreo campaign, that one is just too oblivious for words.

~ ~ ~
Ad: Oreo
Agency: FCB
Location: New York
Agency: TBWA
Location: London

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