Friday, April 30, 2010

Culture & the Ad :: Wind Mobile, Brand Perceptions, & Cultural Stereotypes

Notes from north of 49ºN

A longer version of this was posted on ThickCulture

The above Wind Mobile commercial is for a Canadian cellphone carrier, competing with the big three, Bell, Rogers, and Telus. The humour is derived from characterizing the major wireless carriers as entities that turn a nominal charge into a much larger one with extra fees and charges. Another facet is the use of a South Asian hot dog vendor to make the point, using an accent and cultural stereotypes familiar in North America. The South Asian-Canadian population was 4% of the population in 2006, categorized as visible minorities., i.e., visibly not one of the majority race in a population.

Is this Wind commercial offensive?

This reminds me of a 2007 Guardian UK piece by Manish Vij criticizing the use of The Simpson's character of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon by 7-11 as part of a tie-in promotion.
"Apu is quite a unique character on The Simpsons. Unlike the show's parodies of policemen and Irish-Americans, he's the only character to mock a small American minority relatively unknown in the mainstream, and he's by far the most visible immigrant. For desis (South Asians) growing up in America, just one eighth as concentrated and visible as in the UK, Apu shadowed us at every turn. Until the rise of American Idol chanteur Sanjaya Malakar, Apu was the most widely-known Indian after Mahatma Gandhi. And he has that fake Peter Sellers simulacrum of an Indian accent: Apu's voice Hank Azaria, a Greek-American, is a brown man doing a white man doing a brown man.

To be sure, Apu has many redeeming qualities: a loving wife, passive-aggressive cunning, and a Ph.D. Culture-vulture Simpsons fans have felled entire forests in arguing that he's a parody of a stereotype, rather than the stereotype itself. But the plain fact is that most viewers are laughing at Apu, not with him. They're enjoying the simple pleasures of a funny, singsong brown man with a slippery grasp of English."
Some commenters on the Guardian's site and elsewhere this was discussed were quick to say the reaction is overly-PC and that The Simpsons have poked fun of the Scots with Groundskeeper Willie.

Brand managers try to create communities around brands and the use of images and characters often try to be "on code" and resonate with the target audience. The executions are often "sanitized", but where is the line drawn? Is the fact of the matter that no matter how much you try, Apu and the cultural stereotypes that character represents still have the baggage akin to a lawn jockey. The stereotypes have the power to create differences in "cultural power", which the dominant group and/or economic class wield, whether they exercise it or not.

So, in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle {2004}, despite Kumar being an upper-middle class medical school candidate who speaks perfect English without an accent, local thugs use cultural power to harass him with the taunt,"thank you, come again." Later in the film, Kumar used the taunt ironically right back at his harassers::

The lines of cultural power and privilege can get blurry. Media and advertising infuse meaning and shape attitudes, but what's a marketer/advertiser to do? The use of stereotypes is meant to increase the efficacy of the communication, i.e., ideally the content resonates more with the audience. On the other hand, should marketers and advertisers steer clear of using stereotypes in a non-ironic way, in order to protect the brand from being labelled as insensitive?

In my opinion, the execution of the ad is risky. Yes, it serves to convey its message and will be deemed by many to be humourous. The portrayal of the South Asian hot dog vendor isn't likely to be deemed as all that offensive by many, as it cues cultural stereotypes of new Canadian South Asians, but not in an overtly mean-spirited way. The narrative is matter-of-fact. Nevertheless, those without cultural power may be put off by the ad. If the ad execution used the stereotypes ironically and South asians felt they were "in" on the humour, everything would be cool. THAT is the challenge of good copywriting.

Some might say that those who take offense need to "get over it," but before someone goes on the record as saying that, perhaps they should assess how much cultural power they have.

Twitterversion:: Wind Mobile hotdog cart ad in Canada uses stereotypes to make a humourous pt. Is it offensive or benign? #ThickCulture @Prof_K

Song:: M.I.A. -'World Town'

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