Thursday, October 29, 2009


The world is black; the world is white

There’s perhaps nowhere that companies want to be more careful about how a message comes across than in advertisements. In general, ads are carefully scrutinized to ensure that they cause no offense and make people think positively about the product or service they’re touting, and there’s a long history of ads that were rescinded because they violated those points in one way or another.

That’s why I’ve been pleased with ones like a billboard I saw this week. It was a credit-card ad, the normal sort of thing that reminds you what you can buy with the card. In this one, a black woman was showing off her new clothes to a white man, and the implication from the context was that they’re a couple. Nothing’s made of it; it’s just there.

A few years ago, a provider of satellite television service ran a TV ad depicting a family that had switched from cable to their satellite service. The family was very happy with the change. The family: white mother, black father, and a brace of bi-racial kids.

Nothing’s made of it; it’s just there.

What’s great about this is exactly that the ads are presenting it as unremarkable. When I was a child, in the early 1960s, seeing a black and a white holding hands certainly was remarkable. It was unusual enough that even if you thought it a perfectly acceptable situation, as we did, you noticed it, you pointed it out... you remarked on it. And no company would have even considered putting an interracial couple in one of their ads.

Now, one sees such couples on the streets — of major cities, at least — every day. My early training still has me noticing, though I don’t remark on it any more, unless there’s a particular reason to. The simple fact that they’re interracial is no longer a reason. And, so, the ads are just reflecting reality.

But, significantly, that such couples and families are being used in ads means they’re reflecting a reality that’s sufficiently socially accepted that conservative advertisers aren’t afraid of its putting customers off. It’s OK, now, to have an interracial family advertising your service on prime-time television. It’s fine, today, to display an interracial couple above the commuters at a major-city train station.

Yeah, that warms my heart.

And now a child can understand
That this is the law of all the land
All the land

The world is black, the world is white
It turns by day, and then by night
A child is black, a child is white
Together they grow to see the light
To see the light

— David Arkin, “Black and White”


Michelle said...

Ah.. the cockles, they're definitely warming :)

Nathaniel said...

I'd noticed this trend too, and it warms my heart too. But I'm cynical enough to wonder if the primary implication of this trend is that the number of racists who might be offended is now smaller than the number of aging liberals who might actually be *more* likely to buy a product because the mixed couples/families give them a feel-good association with the product.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Does it matter, Nathaniel? In either scenario the racists are diminished to inconsequentiality.

Now, we just need that pulled IKEA ad - where the gay couple is buying a lamp - to be able to run.

Nathaniel said...

It only matters in how we choose to respond. I'm more likely to support an advertiser that's consciously pushing the envelope, but less likely to support one who is merely trying to exploit my own egalitarian sentiments. Today, a gay couple in an ad would earn my respect, while a mixed race couple produces a more cynical mixed reaction.