How New TV Commercials Testify to a Changing America

By Published on .

Client: Right Guard
Agency: BBDO Worldwide, New York
Star Rating: 3.0

A huge, black man raises his arms to gloat obnoxiously over a foosball goal, and this vile underarm stench overpowers everyone in the room.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive back Warren Sapp makes a point about Right Guard as well as changing American attitudes.

It's a Right Guard commercial, and it's wonderful.

Actually, the BBDO, New York, ad itself -- starring Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Warren Sapp -- is pretty ordinary, a sort of generic argument for deodorant with a brand name attached. What's wonderful is that the big stinker isn't white.

Racial stereotypes
Try to imagine, say, 10 years ago, a commercial in which the butt of that joke would turn out to be African-American. You can't imagine it, because 10 years ago nobody would have been so reckless, for fear of: a) meanly toying with racial stereotypes, and b) being accused of meanly toying with racial stereotypes.

Using anyone but a white male to portray a sucker or a goof or a jerk was beyond the pale, because backlash -- from the legitimately aggrieved to Jesse Jackson's corporate-shakedown racket -- was a certainty. But now every time you turn on the TV you can find a black man or woman taking it on the chin.

  • A Computer Associates spot in which the manager is forced to make a presentation unprepared because his (white) deputy is knocked unconscious.

  • A Hyundai salesman stoically suffers the indignity of an exuberant young customer smacking him in disbelief about the car's value.

  • A postman in a spot for MSN puts letters in the mail slot and has them shoved right back in his face.

  • In a PSA for the United Way, NFL running back Duce Staley is sent to the dunce corner of the class for failing (in a creepy echo of an old explicitly racist joke) to spell "chrysanthemum."

  • An absent-minded husband forgets to buy a Circuit City gift and cowers before his wife.

    Southwest Airline characters
    Then there is Southwest Airlines, which practically serializes black victims of humiliation: the referee who forgets the coin for the coin toss, the nosy guest who gets caught snooping in her hosts' medicine cabinet, the pop singer who thanks the Detroit audience even though he's in Cleveland.

    Southwest's casting probably reflects at least in part a significant African-American customer base, but the broader explanation transcends demographics in a magnificent way. It means the power gap is closing. It means we're not as touchy as we used to be. It means that the culture at large is edging, haltingly but meaningfully, in the direction of colorblindness.

    To liberally paraphrase Sissy Farenthold's speech to the 1972 Democratic Convention, we'll know when we've achieved some sort of racial equilibrium in this country when black people can appear ridiculous in the pop culture right alongside white people. The very fact that this phenomenon has been growing for two years, and nobody has even flinched, speaks volumes.

    No neo-stepinfetchitism
    Let's be clear: we're not talking about neo-stepinfetchitism, or any condescending throwback to the bad old days. These aren't demeaning caricatures; they represent rather the very definition of characters who just happen to be black. And we should rejoice.

    To take liberties with Ecclesiastes this time: In the battle of the not-too-swift, no race is more strong.

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