With over $600 billion in annual income/spending power at stake, advertisers more and more are embracing the importance of using images of diversity in advertising campaigns. Sometimes it’s the strategy, as advertisers purposely create several versions of an ad to target different markets (think McDonald’s) and sometimes it’s part of the story line, as with T-Mobile’s “Yao’s Comfort Food” ad and Burger King’s new “Whopper Virgin’s” ad campaign. Whatever the intention, when race and culture are part of communications, it’s important to think through the implications for potential racism to avoid problems down the line, and when thinking of racism, it’s important to remember the three different levels of racism: Personally mediated, internalized, and institutional racism.
According to Camara Phyllis Jones, in an article published in the American Journal of Public Health, “Personally mediated racism is defined as prejudice and discrimination.” With its emphasis on perpetuating stereotypes, that is generally the easiest to spot. “Internalized racism is defined as acceptance by members of the stigmatized races of negative messages about their own abilities and intrinsic worth.” (Think Black Doll/White Doll experiment from the 50’s recreated by a high school student in 2006). The final, institutionalized racism is defined as “differential access to the goods, services, and opportunities of society by race” (aka “White Privilege”).
The T-Mobile ad features basketball star Yao Ming and the restaurant personnel, who are Asian, and Yao’s colleagues Charles Barkley and Dwayne Wade, who are African-American. Barkley uses his cell phone to call Yao from a restaurant where he and Wade have gone to try Yao’s supposedly favorite dish, which turns out to be live shrimp. While there is an imbalance in access to knowledge, the ad works. There’s a playfulness and respect-it’s clear that all involved are on the same playing field. Even the staff at the restaurant is treated with respect, as they appear to be “in” on Yao’s joke, partners with him, and there’s a broad mix of diversity across ‘background’ roles, others dining in the restaurant or near Yao in what appears to be an airport or transportation center.
The Burger King ad campaign reaches out to farmers in the Transylvania region of Romania as well as tribesman in Iceland and a remote area of Thailand, to conduct a “virgin” taste test comparing the Big Mac and Whopper. While not technically crossing the ‘personally mediated racism’ line (villagers are not stereotyped but actually represent themselves–although I would be curious to verify how they dress in daily life–and, according to BK officials, all have been compensated as well as fully informed as to what they are doing), the campaign does not, and in my opinion cannot, avoid perpetuating institutionalized racism. If institutionalized racism “manifests itself both in material conditions and in access to power” it’s immediately clear that there is a disparity between the villagers, farmers and tribesmen who have lower status in terms of goods and power, and BK, who is yielding money and power to create a self-serving message. In the end, it rings of imperialism.
What do you think? What other ads have you seen that creatively play with cultural differences? Or are there others that cross the line?