Newsflash: Subway Effort Was Not Racist

We're Dangerously Close to Stripping the Word of All Meaning

By Published on .

As part of its $5 dollar-foot-long promotion, Subway recently unveiled a "Holla" site featuring a blinged-out Abe Lincoln. Now, if blog reports are to be believed, a blog crusade has prompted the fast-feeder to yank the site because it was "racist." And that's a pity. This is no cause for celebration. Rather, it's cause for concern. With all due respect to those who've vanquished the House That Jared built, such efforts only make it that much harder for real instances of racism and racial insensitivity in this industry to be taken seriously.

The Subway effort may have been many things. It may have been stupid, lazy, completely lacking in creativity and -- possibly -- disrespectful to the long-dead Abraham Lincoln. But racist it was not. If the word "racist" can be used to describe this effort then surely the word has lost all meaning.

Subway, for its part, said the ad was not pulled because of any blog outcry. In fact, according to the company, the ad first ran for a few weeks back in March and was brought back for a few weeks in the fall for a limited run. The complaint, then, coincided with the company's move to other advertising. That doesn't mean the company's thick-headed or deaf to these complaints. In a statement, Subway defended itself while offering an apology: "The Subway $5 Holla campaign was designed, in a very fun and tongue-in-cheek way, to speak to our young adult customers about our popular $5 Footlongs. Our goal was to have a little fun with the campaign and we certainly meant no disrespect to anybody. We do apologize to anyone that may have been offended by the advertising as that was not our intent."

I had an exchange with Tiffany R. Warren about this a couple week's back when she first flagged a post from Erica Kennedy on Facebook. Kennedy's outrage and her subsequent attempts to ferret out the guilty parties are well-documented on Facebook and elsewhere. Indeed, Kennedy managed to track down Peter Twombly of Subway's agency of record, McCarthy Mambro Bertino, Boston. (In Kennedy's mocking response to Twombly's reply, Twombly was taught the first lesson of "Talking About Race: 101," the one dictating that when discussing race, white people are never to utter the phrase "Some of my best friends are black" or any variation thereof.)

What wasn't well-documented in Kennedy's first post (that I've seen) was how this ad was racist at all. (A reproduction of that post can be found here.) What the post did relay was a sense of anger and talk about global ills, with scant evidence of what was actually racist about the ad. That's where I find this sort of thing even more dangerous. If you're going to call something racist, you'd better have your ducks lined up in a row. And, like it or not, you have to explain it very clearly for the benefit of slow chief marketing officers, creative directors and white journalists.

Kennedy's crusade was prompted by an earlier post on Black Voices by Carmen Dixon. The Black Voices post, for its part, also seems to get at the fact that the ad effort was just lousy:
I did chuckle at the image of Ol' Honest Abe all "tricked out." But, that is part of the problem. In my opinion the text is so bad and insulting because some in a very narrow demographic may not get that the joke is on him or her.

Think of the highly paid, extremely well-educated advertising executives who created this ad campaign. I have no idea of their race, and it does not matter. What I know is that these executives enjoy class privileges that those being made fun of in this ad have no access to.
I italicized that last line because that's where the whole premise goes off the tracks. Up to that point, most of Dixon's beef seems to be with what I alluded to above: lazy, stupid work. Then, in the last line, Dixon mixes up a big ball of racism and classism (two entirely different things) and throws it at Subway. Who's being made fun of here? If anyone's being mocked, it's white people trying to appropriate black culture.

Even in one of Kennedy's Facebook postings, she quotes one of her commenters: "That subway site? I'm not even offended because it's racist. I'm offended because it sux." I think that's the most accurate take.

Have a look at the effort. Let's point out a few things. The ad does not nefariously target anyone of any particular race. It doesn't even necessarily use harmful racial stereotypes to make its point. Bling, believe it or not, is not the exclusive domain of hip-hop culture. Take Dave Navarro, for example, or any other white-trash or glam wanna-be rocker, the sort of folks who've been sporting do-rags and piercings and cheesy sunglasses since the mid-80s. Abraham Lincoln, of course, was white. Further, Abe is the face of the five-dollar bill -- which is the central element of the overall price-point message.

So where does that leave us? With the word "holla" and the use of "street talk." Are we supposed to believe that using the words such as "holla" and "boo" in a corny create-a-message-for-your-friends campaign is racist? Really?

If we're going to claim the use of the word holla is racist, then we've got a hell of a lot of work to do in this society. Using such lingo in an ad might be as pathetic as using the word "fly" in an ad. (For the record, geeky white creatives do use those words in their everyday speech. They also fist-bump one another and do the chest-pound thing. But they're all voting for Barack, so it's cool!) But it's no more racist than, I don't know, my Mr. T t-shirt that reads, "I pity the fool." (Never mind that holla is derived from the pleasantly redneck usage of holler. Maybe the hillbillies have cause to be offended, too.) If use of the word "holla" and a prevalence of bling is racist, then every suburban white kid who wants to be Kanye when he grows up is racist. Eminem is racist.

Indeed, it seems like some people are on the urge of declaring the commercialism of hip-hop "racist." That would be a fun argument to hear, considering more than a few violence-glorifying, women-degrading hip-hop acts do more harm to the African-American race with one album than Subway has done with any of its advertising. But that's an entirely separate debate.

And if we do want to drag the class issue into this argument, that only raises more questions. What about when someone like Harvard Educated (soon to be president) Barack Obama -- who didn't set foot in "the hood" until after an undergraduate stint at Columbia -- uses street slang to "keep it real." Is that classist or racist? What about when one of the Clintons slides into Southern twang and aw-shucksterism when travelling below the Mason-Dixon line? Classist or racist or just trying to fit in? Is it racist that I just used tired phrases "in the hood" and "keep it real"? No. Of course not. (And at least I didn't spell it "da hood.")

I have no problem with slapping Subway upside its head for bad creative. Call the company lazy. Call it crazy. Call it out of touch. Call it ignorant. But crying racist in a crowded theater only does harm to efforts to fight actual cases of racism and stereotyping. Eventually, you'll end up lumped in the same category as those white men claiming that society's out to get them because they're made fun of in advertising. (Yes, those people do exist.) And it makes it that much harder to have any sort of honest or open discussions about race. As it is, every time Ad Age wants to do a diversity story, well over half the people we call -- on all points of the racial spectrum -- refuse to speak on the record precisely because they're afraid of being called a racist, reverse-racist or some other such name.

I'm sure I'll catch all sorts of crap for not celebrating Subway's defeat (if the company did indeed pull the ads due to racial concerns). I'm a white guy, so I would rush to Subway's defense, right? I'm not writing this to defend Subway. Much like Kennedy's commenter quoted above, I'm glad to see the work disappear simply because it sucks.

I'm writing this because I do believe this is a version of crying wolf, and it's something that undercuts the work of those in the industry trying to deal with real racial issues.

This is just one guy's opinion (and does not reflect the opinion of Ad Age or anyone else within 30 yards of my cubicle), and you're more than welcome to tell me I'm wrong. I'm sure plenty of people will.

Special note to Erica Kennedy and Carmen Dixon: If you'd like to reply at length, I'm happy to run your replies as actual blog posts rather than comments. (Or if you'd prefer the traffic to your own blogs, let me know if you write a response and I'll be sure to link to it.)
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