Columns, Media International

When can advertisers use stereotypes to their benefit?

These questions came into sharp focus recently in India with controversy swirling around a couple of drink ads that used a Africans-as-primitive-tribals-beating-drums formula to try and eke some humour out of their communication. In both cases, the use of race was not central to the brand, but a device used to signal a lack of intelligence.

Of course, when such questions are raised about advertising, the typical response is to bemoan the lack of a sense of humour in critics and to argue that ‘it’s only advertising’. If all politically correct critiques were to be taken seriously, advertising would become nothing more than a sterile depiction of an imagined blow-dried reality.

In this case, however, the ads are by no means a depiction of any reality and take a discretionary swipe based on race. In any case, to argue that it is only advertising, is to try and escape its significance of as a living part of popular culture. It would be akin to saying that the Prophet’s representation in a Danish newspaper was only a cartoon and Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic rants were only the words of a film star.

In this particular instance, the irony is more than a little pronounced, given the Indian sensitivity towards stereotypical depictions, which, it must be said, abound in western representations of Indians. Films, TV serials, commercials and western media reports routinely come under fire for misrepresenting the country and its culture and every slight, real and perceived, is taken quite seriously. The absence of any reciprocal consideration is striking in this case.

More significantly since one of the brands involved is Sprite, which is marketed globally, the insularity is potentially much more damaging. Advertising gets created locally, but bad news is consumed globally. For global brands, in particular, it is important to treat all audiences as global when it comes to cultural sensitivities. This is easier said than done and it is important not to go too far in being overly politically correct, but greater sensitivity to gross stereotypes is essential.

This article was originally published in the 29 July 2010 issue of Media