Several times per year, if not more frequently, a major brand comes under fire for running an advertisement that the public widely — and almost always justifiably — deems to be racist.
Just last month, this happened to both Nivea and Sony. And in the latter case, the ad in question was more than a decade old and only ran in the Netherlands. But the internet never forgets, and a Twitter storm quickly brought the controversy surrounding this old ad back to life.
Each time such controversy erupts and the brand in question takes a public beating, it begs the question: Why?
Why would companies that are in the very business of making consumers want to choose their product even approach the line at which they might offend some of those consumers?
While there's surely no single answer to this question, one important answer is as dispiriting as it is obvious: perceived necessity.
The average video ad, for example, has just 30 seconds (if not less) to lay out its message. And that amount of time does not lend itself to subtlety, nuance, or sometimes even basic fairness when it comes to representations of race.
In Advertising and Societies: Global Issues, authors Katherine Toland Frith and Barbara Mueller provide an instructive example by describing an award-winning car commercial that shows the vehicle driving through various countries across the globe, passing a group doing tai chi near the Great Wall in China, and passing a farmer wearing a sombrero in Mexico.
As Frith and Mueller write:
"Certainly not everyone in China does tai chi, nor does everyone in Mexico wear a sombrero, but the intrinsic nature of ads is to push for a sale, and in so doing, to exaggerate or magnify certain aspects of the product and the context in which the product appears. Thus, in the process of 'magnification,' stereotypes of people are enhanced. From the advertiser's point of view, the bottom line is profit and sales. Advertisers have little time for character development."
This notion suggests that, except perhaps in the rarest of cases, advertisers aren't trying to offend or even approach that line but instead simply to convey relatively complex information in simple packages.
"To show that a car is accepted by people worldwide," Frith and Mueller write, "the easiest way to do this is to stereotype people worldwide."
Of course, just because stereotyping is the easiest way for advertisers to convey certain information doesn't make it the right way. But because it's the easiest way, it's not going away anytime soon.
Indeed, as the decades-old ads above show, stereotyping in advertising is as old as advertising itself. And that stereotyping, not to mention flat-out racism, was once far more overt.
Many of the images above come from Stanford University's advertising research project.