Whatever side you come down on in the debate about ethnic shops vs. so-called general-market shops or multicultural vs. cross-cultural, we can agree on one thing: Having a diverse work force can prevent bone-headed, potentially offensive ideas from slipping through. So how did black-face cupcakes end up in a Duncan Hines video?
In recent weeks, I've heard below-the-line rumblings about Burger King and State Farm ads featuring African-American actors.
The BK spot is set in a club and features -- well, it's too stupid to describe. (I've embedded it way below.) A few folks on Facebook thought the club-land setting and aggressive male verged on stereotype. I heard a couple of comments complaining about the nagging-woman stereotype in State Farm's ad. (Also below.)
We can argue back and forth about this, but I don't think the stereotypes in either case were based on race. Clueless, aggressive man and nagging woman are pretty stock, color-blind characters in attempts at humor. (Just ask all those poor, aggrieved white men who complain that the white dad is always portrayed as a dolt and an idiot in U.S. advertising).
Humor involves risk and will always offend someone. Personally, I think the State Farm ad is pretty good -- which is saying something considering how many times I've seen it. (I'd be extremely surprised if VP-Marketing Pam El ever approved an ad that was racially offensive.)
The Burger King ad, on the other hand, makes me do what 99% of Burger King ads make me do: change the channel and vow not to eat at Burger King. (I have an uncomfortable feeling that this is a generational thing and I'm simply getting old. Indeed, judging by comments around the web, younger African Americans have no issue with the portrayals.)
And then there's "Hip-Hop Cupcakes" from Duncan Hines.
Some folks will look at that and simply see harmless cupcakes. Others will look at it and wonder, "How is that hip-hop?"
And many others, including Source.com and many, many other sites, will look at it and see cupcakes in black face.
The thing is, an agency -- not in the traditional sense at any rate -- didn't create that one. Pinnacle Foods' AOR is BBDO, but the Amazing Glazes efforts for Duncan Hines resulted from a partnership with digital studio Filmaka and four independent directors. According to the press release, "Each director offers their own interpretation of the passion, creativity and fun behind baking that the Amazing Glazes toppings inspire."
Obviously, Duncan Hines doesn't want its product or its advertising to inspire offense and outrage. Indeed, Pinnacle pulled the spot off the web and went to the second one, called "Confessions."
Responding to a request for comment, Pinnacle Foods Media Relations said only, "Our intent was to entertain fans with a fun video about chocolate glazed cupcakes, and nothing more."
Is the ad racist or simply clueless? I don't imagine Josh Binder, the director of the spot, sat down and said, "Hey, I'm going to make some black-face cupcakes." (He hasn't responded to a request for comment).
I'm not exactly the most PC guy in the room, but that spot made me uncomfortable. (MetroPCS's "Tech & Talk" spots, which replaced the delightful mythical-creature spots, also make me vaguely uncomfortable.)
At the same time, I find it hard to imagine that even the whitest agency in the land would have let this one through without someone in a meeting raising a hand and saying, "Uh, don't you think this is a horrible idea." Someone else could have suggested, you know, mixing in a few white-glazed cupcakes and not using the phrase "hip-hop."
Sure, debate would have ensued and the protest might have been written off as political correctness, and the agency would have gone with the spot anyway only to be shocked -- SHOCKED --that people saw something nefarious in this.
Instead, we have another marketer having to yank a spot because it didn't occur to anyone at any step in the process that some fairly obvious lines were being crossed.
STATE FARM SPOT