Texaco spot tinted by suspicion of intent

By Published on .

Marketer: Texaco
Agency: Chisholm-Mingo Group, New York
Ad Review rating: Two stars

To be black in America, as we have seen documented again and again, is to be suspect. It is also to be suspicious.

Why is that store clerk being so attentive? Is it because I'm black and he thinks I'll steal? Why is that clerk being so inattentive? Is it because I'm black, and he thinks me unworthy of his help? Why did that cop pull me over when I'm doing the speed limit? Why didn't I get that promotion? Why did I get that promotion?

No wonder. Given the history of racism in America, given how the society is riven and its politics driven by race, who wouldn't be suspicious? Complicating matters, whereas stereotyping of blacks by whites is strictly taboo, it is not necessarily deemed politically incorrect for African-Americans to trade in presumptions of white malevolence. Add, then, to general suspicision the constant undertones of conspiracy.

So--speaking as clueless, white, liberal, Jewish so-called do-gooders--the Ad Review staff is just dying to know how blacks will react to the new African-American campaign by the Chisholm-Mingo Group, New York, for Texaco.

Yes, Texaco, the nice folks who brought you a $176 million employment discrimination settlement, sanctions from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and criminal charges based on destruction of evidence, as brought to light in the infamous Jellybean Incident.

You know, in 1996, when one executive recorded his colleagues speaking--either disparagingly or sympathetically, depending on your read--in insipid Diversityspeak about "black jellybeans."

Once these tapes went public, Texaco's goose was cooked, and it has been trying to repair the damage ever since. Not content to populate its mainstream commercials with jellybeans of every color and gender, the company is on the air with a celebration of the African-American community as a precious energy resource.

"Imagine," a voice-over says, atop a splendid SweetCam montage of African-Americans enjoying life to its fullest, "if you could harness the creative energy here. Imagine if you could capture all the wisdom here. Imagine if you could feel all the spirit. Imagine if you could touch all the enthusiasm, and all the hope.

"Life is full of energy, and Texaco is committed to finding it wherever it occurs--to build a brighter future for all of us."

Committed? Maybe. Certainly cowed, by the litigation, by boycotts, by catastrophic PR. So now it reaches out, imagining, perhaps, that this naked pandering will impress and appease the black community.

No, pandering isn't the right word.

It's more like groveling.

And that's why we're so curious. On the one hand, it's always pathetic and embarrassing to see anyone so humiliated. On the other hand, for the class of the aggrieved, it's attention. Validation. Acknowledgment of a certain kind of power.

The spot is, after all, a beautifully rendered expression of unassailable sentiments, cleverly written in terms of the company's ongoing "World of energy" theme. Though we doubt that viewers of Black Entertainment Television will be persuaded of Texaco's sudden enlightenment (we sure aren't), there's no denying the flattering tone and generous vision of the gesture.

So, what will be the reaction?

If we had to guess, we'd say a small amount of satisfaction, a slightly larger amount of disgust and a whole lot of rightfully earned suspicion.

Copyright May 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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