Quote EndQuote Cross-Cultural Strategy

Racist Ads: The Danger of Stereotypes

Posted by Vanessa Vachet | 03.19.15


Advertising that Crosses Lines: Racist Ads Can do Major Damage

Advertising that Crosses Lines: Racist Ads Can do Major Damage


Whether we mean to or not, we all categorise the world and reduce entire personalities to convenient, easy-to-use labels. It’s called stereotyping and it typically involves attributing the same characteristics to all members of a group, regardless of individual differences. It is often based on misconceptions, incomplete information, or false generalizations.


Sadly, racial stereotypes are still rampant in commercials, print and social media. When will marketers get it? These outdated concepts of our ethnic diversity are just that, tired and old. Yet, culturally insensitive ads continue to crop up.


Below, we have several examples that range from missing-the-mark to downright racist. And we bring them to your attention as a cautionary tale. These advertisers were probably not aware of their mistakes until their campaigns were launched. Maybe their intent was good, but, what do they say about the road to hell being paved with good intentions? Let’s take a look at where these ads have gone wrong…


EXAMPLE #1: Salesgenie.com Super Bowl Commercial


A few Super Bowls ago, Salesgenie.com got in trouble for airing this ad. This cartoon ad is rife with racial and discriminatory stereotypes: there’s the typical ‘Panda’ theme (which is like always associating Canada with beavers). The main character is named Ling Ling, which is also a vague generalisation of Asian names. The characters are consumed with business and money. Are they making fun of immigrant entrepreneurs? This ad goes wrong on so many levels. It also doesn’t escape notice that the Panda characters speak in broken English, a horrible stereotype. But, the voice-over is also clearly provided by a non-Asian attempting an Asian accent. Why wouldn’t you at least employ someone authentically Asian in this ad, like say, hiring an actor of that culture to provide the voice? And why does the one ‘Genie panda’ not have an Asian voice, while the other pandas do? This commercial is not only racist, but also confusing.


EXAMPLE #2: Volkswagon Polo Commercial


This banned Volkswagon ad features an Arab terrorist who attempts to be a suicide bomber at a busy restaurant, but his plan is thwarted because the vehicle is just too strong for his bomb. Stereotyping is used in this instance, with the idea that the ‘typical’ terrorist is of Arab descent. It also promotes a negative generalisation of people who are either Arab or Muslim. This ad tries to tap into people’s fear of religious extremists, in a supposedly clever way, but as you can see, the tasteless joke backfires and the commercial takes on a racist tone. Using people’s fear to sell a car, or projecting negative associations of minority groups in an attempt to grab people’s attention, is not the way to go.


EXAMPLE #3: Sony Ceramic PSP Campaign


In 2006, Sony revealed a Questionable Campaign Billboard Promoting its White PSP’

In 2006, Sony revealed a Questionable Campaign Billboard Promoting its White PSP

Even big companies have missed the mark. In 2006, Sony released a campaign in Holland promoting its new ‘ceramic white PSP’ gaming system. As you can see above, the large billboard depicts a “white PSP” avatar/model violently holding the mouth of a “black PSP” avatar/model. The ad shocked viewers, as deeply racist tones seemed to be evoked. The ‘white’ model is portrayed as the dominant figure, while the ‘black’ model is put in a submissive position and the message is clear: white is strong and black is inferior and basically subservient. It is reminiscent of slavery and no wonder consumers were appalled. Sony also didn’t do a great job at counteracting such bad PR. Instead of confronting the issue and addressing peoples’ concerns, Sony defended itself to GamesIndustry.biz with the following statement: “The marketing campaign for the launch of the White PSP in the Benelux focuses on the contrast between the Black PSP model and the new Ceramic white PSP model.” But, is that a good enough explanation for releasing a racially insensitive ad? Sony needed to do proper testing and research. Maybe they should have spent more time with focus groups, to understand how these images could be interpreted by various consumers. Then they might have avoided this embarrassing display.


EXAMPLE #4: Dodge Dealership Commercial


By contrast, you don’t need a big budget to be extremely offensive. Local and smaller businesses can often blunder in an attempt to be funny or perhaps shocking. The above commercial for a Dodge dealership is the perfect example of an ad which uses racial stereotypes to promote its products. The Superman costume-wearing dealer warns against foreign import automobiles and demonstrates his ability to kick ‘Asian ass’. The heavily accented Sumo wrestler, the vulgar Asian-themed font on the title screen and the subsequent beating of the Japanese wrestler by his American counterpart is all very derogatory to any consumer of that cultural group. We can see where the advertisers were going with this. The message they want to send is obviously ‘buy American’, but by using tacky, offensive stereotypes of Japanese people, this message is completely buried under layers of racist innuendo.


What have we learned?


As you can see from the above examples, racist stereotypes can be damaging to a brand or company and it is not the way to win consumers. If you don’t approach consumers with tact, diplomacy, or authentic, modern reflections of their ethnicity or culture, you will come across as outdated, tacky, offensive, and yes, even racist. With so much focus on inclusion and diversity these days, these ads are shamefully regressive and belittling. We know better and we can do better. It’s time for marketers to get with the times and ditch the stereotypes. And in honour of March 21st’s International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we challenge advertisers to come up with true reflections of our cultural diversity not racist caricatures that belittle us all.


For more information on how to approach multicultural consumers in a respectful and effective way, contact our marketing team at Quote EndQuote.


If you also want to hone your cultural sensitivity, watch this latest AMSSA (Affiliation of Multicultural Societies and Services Agencies of BC) webcast which highlights awareness when it comes to racism and bullying. Click here to watch this insightful video!


Sources: (Top Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons via Trent Bigelow)