Scribbles: Writing by Christin Keck

My writing, information about my books, and a lot of miscellany


The Race I've Run - Part 2

Posted by christinkeck on June 28, 2013 at 7:25 PM


                                              …and differences are still the problem.

       There have been a lot of changes in Civil Rights in America, since the early 1960’s. Where once Americans had been a mostly white, Protestant population with mere pockets of ethnic or racially different people here and there, we can no longer say this is the case. For the most part, things have gotten better. We now are pretty universally offended by the use of the N-word—or any ethnic slur—and in many places, such as businesses and advertising, schools and churches and government institutions, the use of any such pejorative is actually illegal. You see acceptance of racial diversity all throughout the culture now.

      Particularly you see this on the one form of media that has been the main cultural touchstone for almost everyone in America: television. Television in the 1960’s was not nearly the societal giant it would become just yet; that era was just dawning and within only eight years, from 1960-1968, it would become a force that I doubt few had expected it to ever be. Marshall McLuhan’s groundbreaking work in 1964 “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” which elaborated on his 1951 aphorism “the medium is the message,” changed our lives and set us on a path that would forever alter our perceptions. I am not going to go into a long historical and sociological diatribe on how much of McLuhan’s work actually influenced our way of life. There were many such influences from the 1920’s to the 1960’s, and many of them might have been equally effective. It is not in dispute anyway. We were changed, and a lot of that change was wrought by and is reflected in television. You have only to remember what it was like in the early 1950-1960 decade to see it. The changes we have experienced as white people and black people are my focus here instead.

        Until I was 13 years old, you did not see many black people on television that weren’t caricatures. They were maids, butlers, tap dancers, slaves, comic relief or of such minor importance to the story they were obvious tokens, but mostly, they were servants of some kind. You never saw a black business-owner, executive, company official or president, and no black politicians in any roles on any programs. There was only one program that featured black performers in more than adjunct roles, and that was the Amos ‘n’Andy show, which was set in Harlem and featured most (but not all) of the black actors playing roles that ordinary folks might have in such a setting. That was a short-lived show, though—only on the air for two years from 1951-1953. When it died, it was not replaced.

       Other media was no better than television at portraying blacks. Movies, radio, print—popular culture of all kinds relegated the black person to the shadows, and made it difficult to rise above the stereotyping. Okay, we all know this. It’s not new information. But haven’t things gotten much better? Haven’t we broken free of that stereotyping and shadow-casting since we’re all now far more enlightened? I wish I could say we had. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s true. Sure—we have had TV shows with black casts, such as Good Times, The Jeffersons, Family Matters, The Cosby Show—and some of them have been good, and some just awful. Most still showed blacks as caricatures—in some way or another. Some shows even explored interracial dating and marriage. But few gave us thoughtful, serious drama—mostly these were comedies. Sanford and Son—Fat Albert—Good Times—gave us black people not as role models, but as figures of fun. Notable exceptions were the Cosby Show and Julia, starring Diahann Carroll—who was married to Vic Damone, a white man, in real life (though not in the show—no, never in the show.) Still, these were comedies—not drama, not “real”. And they were exceptions, and rare ones to boot. Most of the black TV shows are still comedies.

      I’ve watched all six seasons of Mad Men, the show about advertising that spans the decades between 1960 and 1980. It’s a fantastic show—great acting, great story lines; but it’s more than just good drama—it’s also an overview of our country’s shifts and changes, especially in cultural and social politics. Watching it, you get a distinct and clear picture of how and why and WHEN this country underwent the changes we’ve experienced. You’d think that having lived through it, one would already have that overview and be able to recall it—but even if you’ve paid close attention, there’s nothing like the long-view that this show has delivered, and some of the things I’ve noticed while watching have really startled me in their clarity.

      One of these is a better picture of advertising in general. Watching the show has made me acutely aware of how advertising shapes culture. It’s not the other way around as much as it is just that—advertising has been key in changing our attitudes and ideas. McLuhan was right—the medium IS the message. And advertising is definitely one of the major factors.

       Here’s an example: On one show, Peggy proposes an ad for children’s aspirin that draws inspiration from the film Rosemary’s Baby—the final scene where Rosemary finds out that her baby has not been stillborn, but is alive and well in the apartment next door—among a coven of Satanists. The ad is cleverly done—it never comes out and aligns itself with such horrors, but uses the iconic ideas inherent in the film; old people sitting around a baby’s cradle, spewing outmoded and outdated advice to the new mother, in a mildly menacing way. Of course in the ad, the mother is “saved” by the children’s aspirin product and the tag line is something like “all you really need is St. Joseph’s Aspirin” to cure your baby’s illness. Just as Rosemary takes charge in the film, the mother in the ad uses the “modern” and scientific product to combat old and moldy ideas of how to cure childhood illnesses. The ad is remarkable in that it has drawn from such a frightening and seminal source, but it also comes under fire for something else—something which makes it difficult to sell the ad to the aspirin company—it uses several actors. We learn from Mad Men that actors cost money. They must be paid at union wages. The ad is too expensive for the aspirin company, even though they are happy with the pitch. So not only do we learn that advertising draws from pop culture, we also learn the cost of that endeavor.

       Which brings me to this point. I have been seeing a modern ad recently for a car, the main point of which is that luxury does not have to mean large size. The car in question is a compact car, but luxuriously appointed—with extra cargo space, heated steering wheel, the finest interior appointments. Okay so far? Sure. But here’s the problem with this ad: The first part of the ad shows a black couple eating dinner in a modern well-appointed kitchen, seated at opposite ends of a long table. The woman asks the man to pass the salt, and he gets up to walk the salt shaker to her down the length of this long table, then has an idea—through some clever camera trickery, he pushes on his end of the table, shrinking it down to a more intimate size, and then reseats himself and hands her the salt. The couple in question is sharply dressed, urbane, sophisticated and obviously well-off. And they are black. Good, eh? Well, it ought to be—but as soon as the viewer is introduced to the car—do we see either one of them driving it? Nope. When the actual automobile is finally shown, the driver is a young white guy. Now using the knowledge I learned from Mad Men’s aspirin episode, I know that to make this ad they had to hire three actors. Three union wages. Three salaries. Three sets of residuals. Why? Why not use the same two black actors they had used (or one of them) for the driving portion of the ad? Why change? Because the perception is that black people would not buy a compact car, that’s why.

      The idea is that black people like BIG luxury cars like Cadillacs, Buicks, Chryslers and Lexuses (Lexi?) and not the smaller, eco-friendly, liberal, white-person compacts. Do you think I’m reading too much into this? I’m not. Every single moment of every single advertisement on television, in print media and anywhere else is engineered like this. It is the nature of the industry. It is a prime example of hidden stereotyping—shadow-bigotry. In order to sell this car company on this ad, the entire thing had to be broken down into cost per element—and those two actors’ salaries would have been placed right alongside of the other actor’s salary—and the car company would have had a chance to look at all three and make decisions. There is only one reason a car company would rather pay three actors rather than two—public perception of the product.

      Sure, you can use black actors to sell things to all races of people—but you better know your market. The market for smaller cars is not the black community. Not according to popular perception. But the truth is, there aren’t any car companies who actually push their products to black consumers—not even those large, luxury cars. There aren’t many who push them to women either. When you see a car being driven, it’s more than 99.9% likely it will be driven by a man--a white man. When you see a car company advertising a family vehicle, it will most often be a white family. It won’t be a Latino family, it won’t be an Asian family, not for the most part—and it probably won’t be a black family, though there are rare exceptions.

      Another example: A TV commercial for insurance, where a black mother sits at an outdoor table reviewing specs for insurance with her agent. So far, so good. No husband here—baby is in the stroller next to the table. Then a mime comes up to the agent and mother and speaks out in favor of the money he has saved by purchasing this same insurance. Again—cute and clever—a mime talking. I get it. Then, the baby speaks-- in heavy ghetto/ebonic-style-- and ends with the phrase “Fuh-REEKY!” The baby sounds like Sherman Helmsley on “The Jeffersons.” The mother, (supposedly the decision-maker and who will be paying for this insurance here,) says nothing in the entire ad—not a word. The agent speaks (white guy) the mime speaks (white guy) and that caricature of a baby with the ghetto accent speaks—but the woman says nothing. Her entire function is to look thoughtful (at first) then startled. She is given that same job that blacks were given in a lot of old films: the eye roller. What is this ad saying to us? Yes, the woman is in charge of the family—but is trumped by not one, but three men, two of which are white. So much is she trumped she has no speaking lines at all! She will pay for the insurance—but she will not get a single second of credit—not for making the right choice—not even from her baby—who insists it’s time for them to both leave so he can take his nap. What message does this one send?

      And of course, we can point to years of McDonald’s advertising which specifically targets blacks—young, high-school aged blacks—as their demographic of choice. And KFC’s targeted fried chicken ads to the same group. I’m surprised that there isn’t a “watermelon growers association” ad or a “pork chitlins association” ad for this target audience.

      How many hardware store ads do see targeted for the black homeowner? How many pizza ads? How many ads for high blood pressure medicine? How many high-end clothing retailers and on-line shoe stores? How many perfume ads?

      When you do see blacks in advertisements, they are part of a larger group that may also include at least one recognizably ethnic person from another minority group—an Asian, or Latino-looking type. You don’t see them as the auto repair shop manager—the automobile dealership manager—the insurance agent—the guy selling you an electric sander. You don’t see them as someone who might come into your home to do contracting work—such as a plumber, electrician or builder.

      You do see them in electronics store ads, as bumbling or goofy salespersons—but not buyers or bosses. In fact in another shadow-bigotry example I’ve seen recently for Best Buy, a black store trainee being given a pep talk by the (white) manager, “spikes” a laptop and shatters it. Hah hah. Dumb, huh. Sure. Dumb football player. Not tech-savvy electronics salesperson.

      Seen a black person hawking stomach ailment medicine? Allergy medicine? Drugs of any kind? They are few and far between. Seen one hawking cleaning supplies? Fast food? Beer? Sure—all the time. The messages are not clearly defined in most cases—but the ideas they plant are notable. They reinforce the same stereotypes they always have.

      To be fair, there are a couple of ads I like: one is for Kraft cheese—the one with the catchy song by Mother Mother (Bright Idea). I absolutely love those ads—which show a variety of households of different ethnicities making food together and enjoying it, and then hugging and loving each other. They’re very nice ads, and the tune is quite memorable. The Cheerios ad with the mixed-race family was a great start—but look at the controversy it stirred! What a shame we had to focus on that. Another Cheerios ad makes me smile too—that one shows a father making breakfast for his two boys—one in a high chair, the other one stealing the Cheerios from his little brother’s tray. No overt typing here—just a caring dad making breakfast, two charming kids eating Cheerios. Also good. Why can’t we have ads like that for other things? Ads that don’t promote judgment of a culture or ethnic group?

      We may have come a long way as far as race and racial prejudice is shown on television and in print media, but we haven’t come far enough. Until we no longer target, until we no longer bow to stereotyping, until we no longer care what races anyone in any commercial is—until they all show that all races can be all things—we can’t say we’ve overcome anything. Some companies who buy advertising might argue that by using the black cleaning woman in the Pine-sol commercials they are allowing a black woman to be a cleaner without judgments attached, but in my mind, they are only promoting that older racial category—a black person is good for certain things but not others. When was the last time you saw a black dentist in a commercial? A black heart surgeon? A black stock trader? A black electrician? A black scientist?

      Ad agencies are just a lot more subtle now. We may not have Aunt Jemima, Uncle Remus or Stepin Fetchit selling us products, but we still have Jim Crow.

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