Friday, May 8, 2009

Advertising in the post-racist era

Yeah, I know we're not there yet. Racism is alive and well all over the world. But I'm still seeing signs of an evolved view of our differences. This viral ad is one of them:

Created by video commandos Rhett and Link, this ad is for real. And it's awesome. I'll tell you why.

My personal ideal regarding racism is that within my lifetime it will be normal to ignore the physical differences between people that we call "race" (as opposed to cultural differences, which are a whole other ball of wax). The categories we have put people into since colonial times are useless and arbitrary. It's time to move on.

But coming to the end of an extremely racist 500 years or so, we can't just pretend the problem isn't there. That's where satire comes in.

For example, way back in 2000, the satirical newspaper/web site The Onion ran a hilarious article titled "Black Guy Photoshopped In". It was funny because this kind of thing really happens. In fact, around the same time the University of Wisconsin at Madison was caught doing exactly that:

This issue is also close to my heart as a Creative Director who works on lots of government and other "politically correct" accounts. Casting models and actors for ads is one of the most uncomfortable things we do, because we spend hours planning out the visible ethnic makeup of people. As my colleague Christopher commented, "we spend so much time thinking about the very thing we don't think we should be thinking about".

You can see some of our solutions in our ads. For example, for Public Safety Canada, we portrayed a multigenerational family with a black mom, white dad, black son, and white grandma. While this was a contrived scenario, what made me feel good about it was that nobody seemed to notice the diversity. That's exactly what we were aiming for. (The fireman has an Asian look, too, in case you didn't notice.)

Another one is our HRSDC "baby" commercial for federal education savings plans. When we had to provide the casting director with notes for ethnicity, we said "Mediterranean". The idea was that if we got a bunch of olive-skinned, ethnically ambiguous actors who looked like a family, we were avoiding the problem of identifying a single nationality. For your reference, mom is Egyptian, the baby is French Canadian, and he grows up Italian. Will wonders never cease! Once again, neither focus groups nor public audiences commented on ethnicity. Considering that Toronto groups are infamous for critiquing the diversity of illustrated storyboards, this was a real win.

Diversity is important, and our job as advertisers is to normalize a more diverse Canada without looking fake. To remind ourselves to be conscious of the fine line we tread (and to avoid Onioning ourselves like UWM did) I created this demotivational poster for my office:


  1. i LOVE LOVE LOVE that commercial... that is filled with all sorts of awesomeness!

  2. I have been noticing that a lot of the ads I see involve a half-african-american woman with pseudo curly hair and a bright smile...