A new Pepsi ad has angered the public and is being labelled "tone-deaf" for co-opting scenes and imagery of protest and resistance. While the US company has completely missed the mark, Australia has been consistantly releasing some serious tone-deaf, and frankly racist, ads itself.
Racism, tone-deaf approaches, exploitation and issues of representation are rife in Australia's media, commercial and political history. Whether it is the infamous, and bewildering, 'White Australian Pineapples' advert from the early 1900s or the ongoing controversy around the national 'Australia Day' Lamb ad, this issue doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon.
The overt efforts to actually appeal to racism may have mostly disappeared from advertising - but bizarrely have made a significant comeback in Australian politics. A political campaign video made last year by the Liberal Democrats parodies the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. It's not so much an issue of being tone-deaf as it is an issue of completely understanding the inappropriateness of the tone and still doing it anyway.
But more legitimately tone-deaf is this KFC Cricket ad from 2010, however, it still begs the question as to how it ever made it passed the checks and balances that any major ad campaign would need to go through to actually make it on air.
The idea that the white guy in the ad finds it so 'awkward' and infuriating to be surrounded by black people at the cricket is problematic enough on its own, but the way in which he wins the crowd over (and presumably gets them to stop cheering and playing the drums, and doing whatever else that is so painfully vexing to him - like being black) by his gift of fried chicken, is something that should have had red flags popping up all over the place.
This one is an example of an interesting phenomena in Australia - the idea that we have no idea whatsoever of the history of racism, particularly American racism and stereotypes, and that it has no application in an Australian context. This argument is commonly used whenever another blackface incident makes the headlines even though Australia has its own blackface history, albeit one undoubtedly influenced by the popularity of it in American history. But that's kinda the point, White Australian culture has been heavily influenced by White American culture for a very long time now and to feign ignorance of the more popular forms of racism in America is a hard claim to make for anyone who owns a computer or a television.
Last year, two ads that the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) ruled against, both depicted offensive portrayals of Indian people. One was this ad from Ubet,
And the other was this Cadbury Picnic ad,
The complaint made about the Cadbury Picnic ad was significant because it noted a key problem when discussing issues of representation for all non-white Australian groups - there are so few examples of non-white people on our screens that stereotypical representations have a much greater impact.
"There are more than 147,100 Indians residing in Australia, yet we don’t see Indians ever being portrayed on commercial Australian television in the various capacities that they in fact function within the numerous communities throughout Australia as doctors, engineers, lawyers, etc speaking in Australian accents, mixed accents and so on. Instead, on the incredibly rare occasion that an Indian is seen on Australian television, he/she is portrayed in the most stereotypical and offensive manner."
This is an important consideration to factor in; if we more commonly saw examples of appropriate representation on television then the occasional inappropriate example, while still not being acceptable, would undoubtedly carry less sting. This is why complaints from white people about the occasional 'bogan' stereotype on television don't carry much weight. You can turn to almost any show at any time and see the full gamut of representation of white people. But as long as it is a rare occurrence to see an Aboriginal person on your screen (outside of NITV obviously) then it is reasonable to expect that people are going to interrogate each portrayal more closely, and are going to more concerned if the majority of roles for Aboriginal actors are stereotypical ones.
This is why it was so comical when complaints about last year's lamb ad being 'offensive and racist to white people' were made. These complaints were of course knocked back by the ASB, as explained by Rebecca Shaw in her wonderfully titled article for SBS Comedy, 'Lamb Ad cleared of 'racism against white people' because f*cking DUH'.
In her article she notes that:
I, personally was not a huge fan of the unquestionably high levels of diversity shown in that lamb ad though because to me it felt just a bit too laboured. It was made in direct response to ongoing and accurate criticisms about the lack of diversity in these annual ads, and for me, that means it doesn't really deserve a cookie.
Even though they slowly moved from zero representation to all the representation, there are still countless problems with where the campaign has ended up, which you can read more about here if you aren't sure what those problems are, but basically - it reeks of a group of white PR people thinking about how they can turn their historic lack of diversity into increased lamb sales so... yeah, but nah.
Also, the latest ad was pretty tone deaf to the motivations behind the 'Change the Date' campaign in framing Australian history as one big friendly barbecue that everyone was welcome to join. The Cope St Collective parody was way better.
We analyse these ads to such a degree though because they are so rare, and seem worthy of thought and reflection, but the obvious reality is that the most racist ads are the ones you don't even notice, because they don't even have any diversity to reflect on if the representations presented are stereotypical or not.
There have been some conscious efforts to increase diversity on screen, largely in response to ongoing push back from the community at large calling for increased diversity, but it is still usually done as an exercise of ensuring that you do not ostracise the large portion of the Australian community who would prefer to see their screens portray levels of diversity commiserate with the levels of diversity within our country. If this increase in diversity was a sincere one though and not one driven by commercial necessities, we would see increased levels of diversity behind the scenes as well - in PR firms, and in companies like the Meat and Livestock Association who suddenly became so pro-diversity. We have still not reached a point where issues of representation are addressed as part of normal practice, or are given any meaningful consideration beyond either exploitation of a market segment, or damage control.
So when those oh so few people who aren't white do make it on our screens, it is important that they do not reflect the worn out stereotypes that were not so long ago rife in media and advertising, and often played by white people in make up and horrible accents... *cough*
But, it is also important that media execs, PR companies, advertisers, and the companies that they represent ensure those few non-white actors who make it onto our screens are not directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally promoting stereotypes, being tone-deaf to important issues, causes, or moments in history. It is important that representation isn't controlled solely by white people behind the scenes, and that the role of 'sensitivity' tester isn't thrust onto a focus group, or onto a minority actor who is put into a very difficult position of making themselves 'too difficult' to work with for pointing out the problems that they were asked to point out if they were actually expected to merely rubber stamp the process and 'go along with the fun', 'in the spirit it was intended'.
It is important that we call out stereotypical representations in media, but it also important that we do not give cookies to companies who try to cash in on diversity without embodying it within their own organisation, and who hire all white PR firms to come up with clever ways to exploit the good feels that many of us feel from seeing a few non-white faces on our screens.
Reality in advertising as it applies to diversity is probably not going to happen anytime soon, given the harsh realities of racism. However, having an expectation that important issues are not going to be co-opted by corporations whose interest lies solely in exploitation for profit is hopefully not too much to ask for.
Whether or not the lesson learned from the Pepsi debacle is to go back to mundane white-washed ads that try to play it safe, or if they actually learn from it and learn to address issues of diversity and representation for peoples and issues better remains to be seen. With only 9 months to go until the next Australia Day lamb ad though, we definitely won't have to wait too long to find out.