Racism in advertising: A sick flag over America?

July 8, 2008

The Race Cards. Can you spot the ad?

What to make of the new Six Flags campaign? You don’t need to go far to get an opinion. Go online or ask anyone who’s seen it. It’s polarizing work.

The ads feature a rowdy young Asian, who loudly interrupts uber-lame scenes yelling “One flag! No Fun!” At subsequent images of an exciting park ride, he returns, exhorting: “Six flags! More Fun!” Each spot is more or less the same. Crap activity gets a low flag. Park rides get six. It’s not a bad idea. Using the park icon as a rating system for summer fun (or lack thereof) is solid. And if not for the blatant stereotyping (Chinese? Japanese? Korean?), I’d give the concept four or five flags.

But there’s the matter of the screaming Asian. On a base level, he’s what makes the spots stand out. But like Al Jolson, belting out tunes in black face, the man feels drawn from something pernicious -World War II propaganda. He’s Charlie. Or the Chinese Dry Cleaner. Would these spots deliver without the exaggerated caricature? I’m sure the agency looked at countless guys. And I’m sure he was the funniest. Regardless, using him in that way was, in my opinion, wrong.

But am I wrong? When Krusty the Clown resorts to aping a Chinese waiter to get laughs, is that permissible use of the stereotype? In this case, it’s satire. Krusty is a desperate buffoon. The audience (us and his) loves to hate him. Like Archie Bunker, this lovable loser teaches us a lesson about the human condition and our character defects. Or not. Sometimes I just think Krusty is one hilarious bastard. Going full circle, how come Jolson got no leeway here? Is it because he was advocating racism with his performance?

In any event, it’s pretty clear advertising does not have the same freedom to offend as entertainment. Since we are not choosing to watch the Six Flags commercial, we are offended to have this material thrust into our living rooms.

Remember the hullabaloo over the maybe homophobic Snickers commercial aired during the Super Bowl? If that bit played on a Fox sitcom it probably wouldn’t have gotten a laugh. As a TV commercial, on the big stage, it became a cause celebre.

Finally, even the creators of content operate and are judged by different standards. Would the “Funny Asian Guy” draw as much negative publicity (in our industry, anyway) if he were a Crispin Porter creation? The Burger King creeps a lot of people out and baiting stereotypes is just one of the reasons why. “Wake up with the King” was a campaign that clearly pushed homophobia buttons in young men. But instead of wanting him off the air ASAP, we accept the Burger King as a perverted, sadistic weirdo.

So why not the Funny Asian Guy? Maybe it’s all too subjective to have a legitimate debate. Of hard-core pornography, Potter Stewart shunned an actual definition: “I know it when I see it,” he famously said.

I kind of feel that way about the Funny Asian Guy.


11 Responses to “Racism in advertising: A sick flag over America?”

  1. Jason Fox said

    I’ve only seen this spot once on air, and it didn’t even occur to me that the guy is Asian. Of course, I’ve been a bit distracted of late with poo (not my own), but still – I didn’t notice. I did notice that the spot was annoying. Which was plenty enough offensive to me.

    Nonetheless, the point of advertising not having the same latitude as entertainment programs is valid. The only safe targets for caricature are Caucasian fathers. And I can’t even target them considering I now belong to that group. Guess I’ll have to stick to subtle wit and dwarfs. I mean, midgets. I mean, little people. Sigh.

  2. SRP said

    You’re being glib and it’s refreshing. However, you are making a solid point about White Dads being a “safe” target in commercials. Hence all the dumb ads featuring dumb dads. Ridicule mom, the kids, even the dog and you’re picking a fight. No Flags!

  3. Jason Fox said

    Exactly. Perhaps one day I’ll rant about the dumbing down of the American dad in entertainment and its negative effects on the culture at large. How did we go from Bill Cosby to Jim Belushi in a short 20 years?

    I’ll go back to being glib now.


  4. Ann said

    When I lived in Japan for two years back in the early 90s, these disembodied, freaky, wacky faces were EVERYWHERE–commercials, magazine covers, in-store signage. You couldn’t escape them.

    I didn’t realize, however, that there was a notion in the US that Asians were any funnier than the rest of us. Maybe if the joke was “studying hard, getting good grades in math: SIX FLAGS!” that would be more to your point.

    So I guess, from the perspective of an admittedly caucasian writer (me), the worst you could say about the Great America campaign is that it is graphically unoriginal. Oh, and irritating.

    But I much prefer it to the stereotype-busting dancing old guy.

  5. SRP said

    Another interesting point in the debate: Is it okay for one culture to use demeaning images for various reasons because the “home” culture once did? Maybe…but certainly not in marketing.

  6. james-h said

    Excellent point (if this was indeed your point): It wouldn’t be offensive in Japan. Is the fact that it’s interruptive indicative of our collective values? Is it the classic “You can’t do that, only WE can do that” racism reserved for African American fellas calling each other the N-word?

    I cast a Pakistani convenience store clerk once. He was funny as hell. And it felt right. And wrong. And we all looked at each other and got nervous. but I think we just got nervous because we were a bunch of white guys creative a spot with unwhite people in it. Were we allowed to do that? A great pitfall of advertising: it’s either narrowly cast with a pile of white people, or it’s inadvertantly poking fun at some minority.

  7. james-h said

    “…creating a spot…”

    stupid art director.

  8. Suex said

    Honestly, as a creator of content, it’s hard to know what to do sometimes. Your conscience tells you “no” but you’re ad-self screams “Do it! It’s funnier with the black guy. It’ll win prizes. It’s more real.”
    Regarding casting, I’ve been in James H situation and to this day I don’t know if we(I) made the right decision.

  9. SRP said

    These delicate decisions do not get easier each time. Our moral compass is all we have to guide us. Talk about a low-tech device!

  10. Greg Itahara said

    Being Japanese and having a grandfather who served in the highly decorated 442nd infantry in WW2 it seems in todays society (from an asian minority point of view) that anyone that sounds or doesn’t conform to the “american” perception of how we act as a whole is deemed as “funny” rather than “racist” in the media. Case in point the recent uproar over the non-licensed Chicago Cub shirts that were printed from the hype of Kosuke Fukudome. To one person the shirt which had a slant eyed cubs logo with the words “Horry Cow” may seem tongue-in-cheek but to the vast asian american community it’s a slap in the face and VERY offensive. I guess anything for a buck.


    who cares the guy agreed 2 do da commercial

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