Monday, October 17, 2011

Starbucks falsely accused of racism?

This poster, via Gawker, appeared recently in Starbucks locations in France to remind customers to watch their valuables. A group called SOS Racisme complained that it was racist, because they saw the man portrayed as a brown-skinned  stereotype of a pickpocket. Starbucks took them down.

A simple case of successful activism?

Depends how you look at it. And whether or not you have seen the other poster in the series:

Do you read this illustration of a smiling woman as a portrayal of a criminal? Or do you see her as a potential victim?

Here's the problem. France, like many other once-homogeneous nations becoming increasingly multicultural, has a serious racism problem. It's so bad that apparently groups who specialize in speaking out against it see even an innocent portrayal of a brown person through a racist lens.

These people are both, obviously, supposed to be customers. The man is presumably a student or a young worker, with his casual attire, backpack, smartphone, wallet and laptop. The woman is perhaps a little older, carrying a purse (although that may be my prejudice peeking through).

There is nothing to see here, really. In context, it is clear that the illustrator, agency and client were just trying to reflect France's modern diversity in positive portrayals of customers. And it backfired horribly.

Should Starbucks have tried to defend itself? Or is this kind of discussion best avoided by PR-vulnerable brands?

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