National Column: Lighter isn’t better with this ad

Reading Time: 3 minutes

by Shree Paradkar

The first step towards lightening

The White Man’s Burden

is through teaching the virtues of cleanliness.

PEARS’ SOAP

is a potent factor in brightening the dark corners of the earth as civilization advances, while amongst the cultured of all nations it holds the highest place – it is the ideal toilet soap.

Anybody who got through that without shaking their head needs to give their head a shake.

But, hey, that was the 1890s, when racism was, like, totally cool.

Zoom way into the future to now and what a change. There are no racists anymore. You can tell because advertisers don’t appeal to them or say anything racist.

Ashton Kutcher didn’t do brownface for Popchips in 2012.

Dunkin’ Donuts didn’t air commercials using blackface in Thailand in 2013.

Nivea didn’t show a Black man tossing a mask of his own pre-Nivea Afro-haired head with the words
“Recivilize yourself” in 2017.

Pepsi didn’t appropriate the powerful image of Ieshia Evans facing down armoured police while protesting police brutality in Baton Rouge last year.

There are many such creative forces: Sony, H&M, Dove, to name a few.

So it isn’t surprising that an international beer company pulled back its commercial this week after releasing on TV and online a fresh endorsement of colourism/shadeism. In it, a light-skinned bartender passes a beer past various Black people to another light-skinned woman. Then comes the tagline “Lighter is Better.”

In the spirit of denying this latest transgressor the pleasure of publicity, I won’t deign to name the beer company even though it’s available all over the net.

“While we feel the ad is referencing our Heineken Light beer,” a company spokesperson told BBC News in a statement, “we missed the mark, are taking the feedback to heart and will use this to influence future campaigns.”

Its official statement was more weasel worded: The ad “can be perceived in a different manner and may be offensive to some.”

Innocence and lack of intention can only work so many times in a connected world. Is it probable that none of the corporate types who OK’d the creative for the ad that was reviewed up and down the ranks foresaw how the play of lighter being better and Black people could be racist? That they hadn’t heard of Nivea’s “white is purity” ad campaign last year, the one that got hijacked by white supremacists? No? How about H&M’s disgraceful sweatshirt ad a few months ago?

Perhaps it was an attempt at “shock advertising” or in this case, a depraved spotlight grab.

Racism as a stealth publicity stunt. Or, we could call it hit-and-run advertising.

Provoke with a racist ad. Wait for the outrage. Apologize (with the words “didn’t mean it” and “learning” thrown in), make sure you insert your brand into the apology. Pull back.

You can’t buy the publicity generated by the two cycles; first of running the ad and then of running the apology.

Arthur Fleischmann, CEO of the John St. advertising company he co-founded in downtown Toronto, has been in the business for about 30 years. He says he would “put the ad in the bucket of, ‘Wow that’s tone deaf.'”

He is puzzled by how a big global beer brand could approve an ad like that, but, “is any PR good PR? I would say today absolutely not,” he says. “If the shock and commentary is off-brand then you’ve done something detrimental to your business.”

What does detrimental mean? Does brand damage translate into losses? Do people boycott the product in a meaningful way?

Fleischmann says “people get outraged and furious at brands but – generally speaking, people will forgive a brand a misstep and in fact theyíll forget about it over time.”

But he suggests looking at the cultural biases of the market. “Maybe they’re in markets where gender and race and sexual orientation profiling isn’t held to the same standard.”

The ads were aired in the U.S., New Zealand and Australia.

As someone who grew up in a culture deeply obsessed with light skin – “fair skin” – I know what Fleischmann means. And I can smell colourism/shadeism a mile off.

The stigma around dark skin and the association of lighter skin with refinement and success has become a pandemic.

Worldwide spending on skin-lightening products is projected to triple to about $40.3 billion in six years, according to research firm Global Industry Analysts.

There’s an idea. Maybe this beer company should diversify into the fairness creams business.

They’ve already got the advertising down pat.

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity issues. You can follow her @shreeparadkar
Copyright 2018-Torstar Syndication Services

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