Was That Ad Funny or Insulting?

Playing With Stereotypes Raises Questions

By Published on .

Carol Watson Carol Watson
I watched the BET Hip Hop Awards last week and was struck by an ad from Alltel that I had never seen before. It may have been created specifically for the show or network. It featured the four hilarious Alltel guys with an agent representing a black celebrity athlete (a fake one played by an actor). The athlete did not appear interested in the business deal being discussed and only wanted to make sure that his bobble-head look-a-like doll was created as promised by his agent. When the guys said something to him he jumped up like he was going to start a fight. It should have been funny, but in the context of the show, it felt more disturbing than humorous. It stayed with me all week.

What struck me was that the entertainment environment for the show, like most award shows and particularly for hip-hop, is about celebrating talent and showing respect for the craft and the artists' work. The Alltel ad, true to the humorous tradition of the campaign, is about mocking and making fun of everyday people and stereotypes. The character presented in the ad was a celebrity athlete who exhibited the typical stereotypes: not too bright, egocentric and, when pushed, likely to use his size and menace to create fear and the threat of an ass-kicking.

Alltel ads have been around for a while. Most of them are clever, effective and make fun of all of us. So what's the problem?

Like other award-show ads, it would have been nice to find a humorous way to get the point across and still respect both the audience and the subject of the spot (in this case, black male athletes). While some of our black male athletes haven't exactly made us proud of their behavior lately, I am not sure if black consumers -- or American culture for that matter -- are ready to see black celebrity athletes portrayed as dumb, violent and naïve, especially if those consumers are being asked to buy a product. Marketers must understand that the sensitivity comes from the burden of racism. The effort needed to change the current stereotypes takes away from the pure entertainment of the spot. Marketers working towards building a long-term relationship with a vital consumer market need to be aware of these things and the questions that such campaigns can raise.

The Alltel ad gave me pause and raised more questions than I could answer. Are we at a point where we can make fun of our celebrity athlete? Does the particular TV program environment change the response? Is it OK to make fun of our celebrities and idols, especially at a time when they are being awarded, honored and celebrated? Is it OK for everyone to take a stab at them? Or does this fall into the debate surrounding other hot words. For example, is only OK for blacks to use the "N" word and is it only OK occasionally for women to call women bitches?)

Maybe we have lightened up and we are not that sensitive, at least about some stereotypes. Maybe when we are talking about our black male athletes they are fair game.

Then again, maybe it was just a funny spot. What do you think?.
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