This week I finally got round to watching the Spike Lee movie Bamboozled.
It’s an odd one, to say the least: a black TV executive develops a modern minstrel show featuring black actors in blackface with the intention of being satirical. However, the whole thing backfires when the show is a massive hit.
It starts off a little patchy, but the minstrel parts are remarkably uncomfortable and, consequently, powerful. The movie ends with a compilation of moments from Hollywood films and TV shows that portray white people in blackface and black people in demeaning and negative stereotypes:
As I sat though that, wincing and grimacing, I kept thinking of something else:
For those of you slightly younger than me, or from a country other than the UK, that ad ran before every single film through the 1980s (Kia Ora was a sickly-sweet orange drink on sale in all cinemas). I must have seen it 1000 times, and not once did it ever occur to me that it was racist.
Perhaps I was naive, but I never thought of these crows as the kind of tropes seen in Spike’s film. However, that’s exactly what they are, and if you think I’m just imagining something that isn’t really there, the ad tops this list of the most racist commercials of all time.
That said, there’s a debate among the Youtube comments along the lines of, ‘Jesus Christ! How did they get away with this incredible racism?’ and ‘Come on mate, they’re just crows, not black people. How can that be racist?’. I think the gap might come from the fact that these are particularly American stereotypes, so British people might not have seen them for what they were.
Advertising legend John Webster, who explains the entire genesis of his commercial here, was famous for borrowing from movies for his ads (the most famous example of which is the Cresta Bear, which John has admitted was basically a cartoon version of Jack Nicholson’s performance in Easy Rider). So perhaps he was inspired by the crows from Dumbo:
But they were so racist that one of them was actually named Jim Crow, just like the series of laws intended to oppress the black population of America.
Like I said, most British people didn’t see this ad as racist, so I imagine John Webster was the same. Yes, it’s odd that Kia Ora characters are a parade of racial stereotypes, including ones that weren’t even amongst the Dumbo crows. Yes, one might wonder how, out of all the possible choices, John selected racially stereotypical black crows (why not Russian political heroes in the guise of turtles? Or Brazilian musicians in the form of chinchillas?). But it was forty years ago, and the past is another country.
The ad won plenty of awards, the public (myself included) loved it, and there was no kind of furore at the time. Yes, at that time, casual and not-so-casual racism was rife in British society, including in its TV shows, and that might also have contributed to this ad’s racism being able to hide in plain sight.
Talking of which, later that same decade, this press ad was lauded as one of the true greats:
Maybe it was funny in 1988. Maybe, if you’re a complete arsehole, it still is. But holy shitballs… I know the Native American holocaust doesn’t get as much attention as other genocides, but is it really a reasonable basis for a ‘joke’ by which to sell boots? Imagine if the headline read, ‘We sold their gold, their ivory and their people. Then we went back for their music’, above a picture of a Liberian slave. Still worth a D&AD Silver?
But let’s go back to the point Spike Lee was making: culture has power; perhaps more than we might think. In an interview that accompanies Bamboozled, he reminds us that the KKK was pretty much dead in the early part of the 20th Century, but then The Birth Of A Nation came out in 1915 and, as this article puts it, ‘…depicted the Ku Klux Klan as valiant saviors of a post-war South ravaged by Northern carpetbaggers and freed Black people.’
In that interview, Spike said, “Indirectly, because of (the way they were portrayed in Birth Of A Nation), black people got lynched, castrated, beat, killed, murdered.”
What I’m taking a very long time to say, is that we who put things on air are responsible for all kinds of effects that we might not be aware of. The Birth Of A Nation example is at the extreme end, but it illustrates the importance of the choices we make in the public messages that we create.
Here’s a more positive example: until the early 70s, UK ads didn’t feature ‘normal’ people, by which I mean those that reflected the vast majority of the country. Instead, like most of what was on TV, the ads of that time were full of ‘posh’ people, speaking in BBC English.
Then Alan Parker came along and changed all that with ads like this:
It probably seems quaint when viewed through the lens of 2021, but these casting choices were revolutionary, finally giving a huge slice of the British public advertising that featured people that looked and sounded like them. This helped to legitimise them, and, as some people might say today, made them feel ‘seen’.
That commercial advertised beefburgers, but it also advertised many other things that had a real cultural effect on the country. The casting and set design choices that Alan made, as well as the decision to have the boy speak in a very particular Northern vernacular, made invisible differences that could never appear on the sales charts of Birds Eye.
Advertising then went on to sell all sorts of domestic products in all sorts of homes and kitchens, via all sorts of kids speaking in all sorts of accents. The first layer of messaging was simple enough, but what about the next level down?
Almost all kitchens in ads suggest that they are some version of ‘normal’, so if one features a central island for preparation, what do people think? I have no statistics to hand, but I know very well that most homes in the UK are far too small to have a kitchen with an island (despite eventually making decent money in advertising, before moving to America I certainly never lived in a home with a kitchen big enough for an island; the last one I had was not much bigger than my wardrobe). So people would surely look at these supposedly regular old kitchens and subconsciously ask a few questions: what is that? Why don’t I have one of those? What do I have to do to get one? Is that normal? The family in the kitchen don’t seem massively rich. How did they get that thing? Have I messed up? How can I improve my life to the extent that I can get one of those things ‘normal’ people have?
And you thought you were just selling Flash/Marmite/Chicken Tonight.
You might remember going round to your friend’s house when you were a kid and seeing something they had that you didn’t: a dishwasher, perhaps, or a wine rack. You might have asked what it was and your friend’s mum might have been sensitive enough not to say, ‘It’s a bloody dishwasher, you little pleb’. Hopefully she kindly explained that it was a machine for washing dishes.
So you learned that some people had, and some people had not, and that realisation, understandable though it might be in a non-Communist society, can be quite a lot to deal with.
Advertising tends to portray aspirational lifestyles, so the things in ads tend to be ‘better’ than normal, while simultaneously portraying them as some version of normal. On one hand we might be giving people something to aim for, but on the other we might be making people feel inadequate:
I don’t know about you, but when I make an ad I tend to concentrate on conveying the concept clearly, whether through the script or other cues. Of course casting and set design are important, but they don’t receive the kind of attention the ‘ad’ part of the ad does. So we can let a lot of secondary messaging through without detailed consideration, and people will feel a certain way because of those less considered choices.
Thinking a bit harder about these things has led to a greater diversity in the casting of commercials, which must have a positive effect on (non-racist) people, but we should always think about the whole thing, and all the effects those other signals might have.
For instance, there’s no need to make people feel bad, like this highly-awarded ad deliberately did:
As the explanatory copy on the YouTube page says (bold parts mine): When it comes to hosting, we all have those little voices in the back of our heads that say our home isn’t up to the job. And whether it’s the chipped mug, the crack in the wall, the weirdly shaped bathroom, or the living room that has as much personality as a cardboard box, the voices seem to zoom in on our biggest fears and magnify them until we declare our home a no-go zone. But at IKEA, we believe every home is worthy of a get together and that with a little imagination and some clever IKEA products and ideas, there’s no reason not to host. In this campaign we want to inspire the nation to get their homes party ready. And Silence The Critics, once and for all.
Well, at least they’re being honest.
So if we know about the effects we can have on people feeling good or bad, proud or ashamed, adequate or inadequate, maybe we need to be more responsible about what we put in front of the public.
Maybe ‘aspirational’ is not something we should aspire to. Maybe it’s one of the reasons why people hate advertising. Maybe more down-to-earth choices would make for better ads. Maybe we should have departments that can advise us on our secondary choices and how they land. If casting needed to become more diverse, maybe the rest of the ad needs to do the same.
Of course, what I’m saying doesn’t apply to all ads. Thanks to Alan Parker, plenty of commercials have been conveyed in more ‘ordinary’ settings (for balance, John Webster’s Arkwright campaign for John Smiths would be an excellent example).
But let’s not sleepwalk through our choices. As mass media communicators we have great power, and as a certain arachnid superhero’s uncle once pointed out, with great power comes great responsibility.