"That which does no earthly good cannot be heavenly minded." R. Rivera

Friday, November 18, 2011

"...As makes the angels weep."

Ruben Rivera, Heavenly Minded & Earthly Good Blog©
18 Nov 2011

Last week I spent several days at a conference in Baltimore, Maryland on developing intercultural competency. Let me show you why this is important with some visuals.

The question here is not whether you (the reader) find this ad personally offensive. But if you work for Nivea's ad agency, the question is whether you have a clue that other people might find this ad offensive. If you don't, why not? If you do, why did you do it any way?

The Nivea skin care advertisement above is a good example of intercultural incompetence. It offended so many people (I'll leave you to guess why) that Nivea issued an apology: "This ad was inappropriate and offensive. It was never our intention to offend anyone, and for this we are deeply sorry. This ad will never be used again."

"This ad was inappropriate and offensive." How then did it get by all the ad creators and final decision-makers? There are only so many possible explanations: (1) Fact: the vast majority of people in high echelons of advertising are white folks. I don't say this to put them down. But it does mean that some of them may not have intercultural experience that might have clued them ahead of time that this ad would not sit well with many people. (2) One cannot assume that just because there may be some people of color in advertising that they are automatically interculturally proficient. In other words, if there were people of color that contributed to this ad, they obviously needed a clue too. (3) The powers-that-be knew they were pushing the envelope of propriety but risked it any way (more about that later).

Here's another one.

Why might this ad be troubling to some people? The response from many folks is in the connection of the words "Visibly more beautiful skin..." with the above picture of progression from less to more beautiful skin which goes from left to right: black to middle (Latina?) to white. Is this just "reading to much into this"? Perhaps. It could be an attempt to include diversity and that's not a bad thing. But if you know anything about the multibillion dollar global "beauty" industry, you know that the standard of beauty that has dominated the world is Caucasian, and people of color all over the world spend loads of money to rid themselves of their non-Caucasian ethnic features. (Check the annual "Erasing Ethnicity" reports, for example here.) 

In fact many household name "beauty" companies have commercials overseas that tell you relentlessly: the whiter you look the more beautiful you are and the better your life will be. Don't believe me. Check out this skin ad from India.

Yeah, probably would cause a bit of ruckus in the good old US of A. In fact it is a big controversy in India itself, a land were most people are darker in complexion. 

There are "beauty" ads like this over much of the world; and there is so much money to be made on the get-white industry that other issues such as the racialization of what it means to beautiful, or human at all, will likely not be discussed in company board rooms.
But I am asking for a discussion. Is there a difference between trying to keep yourself clean, groomed and healthy and erasing your ethnicity because you don't think you are good enough, human enough, beautiful enough the way you were born?

Another one.

Summer's Eve has long pushed the envelope when peddling their "feminine hygiene" products. This ad series was dubbed "Hail to the V." And no, "V" does not stand for extraterrestrial "Visitors" who turn out to be would-be reptilian conquerors of earth. Let's leave aside the pretty creepy idea of using a hand positioned vertically to represent a talking you-know-what. 

The other thing is that when the advertising creators used a black and Latina woman in their commercials, they racially stereotyped them. The back woman's voice is reminiscent of 1970s blaxploitation films. The Latina begins, "Ai-yi-yi, another layover. After traveling all day, you expect me [V] to feel good, seriously?" in, of course, a stereotyped accent.

And what about the white hand/person in the ad? She could have hailed from Germany, but she doesn't speak in gutturals or mention sauerkraut, lederhosen, or Otto von Bismark. So why stereotype the other two?

Is it that these ad folks think that we are too dumb to understand that people across nationalities and ethnicities need to wash down under unless we see and hear it in racial stereotypes?

The pièce de résistance: The Axe cologne "Even Angels will Fall" ad.

Axe Excite ad showing angles about to smash their
halos and, well, you know.

This tv ad depicts sexualized female angels who have fallen to earth. What in the name of all that is holy could have happened? 

The great Medieval Scholastic theologian St. Anselm famously described God as "the that than which no greater can be conceived" or the "Sum of all Perfections". But apparently he was mistaken. The honor of that title goes to a men's cologne. For angels tell God to take a hike and they come down (or are cast down?) to earth so that they may "know" (as in, "Adam knew his wife Eve and begat Cain") the cologne wearer. I suppose a sequel to the commercial would show churches all around the world with bronzed bottles of cologne on top of their steeples. People inside are wearing (you guessed it) little bottles of cologne around their necks, and the "worship service" is unorthodox to say the least. Instead of parishioners rolling in the isles, they're rolling in the.... Well, you get the idea.

Now this ad is not so much an instance of incompetence as contempt for the sacred beliefs and feelings of others. For even the company's so-called apology was released with the intent to offend. 
"We have…made sure...the seriousness of the matter is understood by our angels. Those who continue to use Axe Excite hoping to entice the angels, please keep in mind – although there is no individual risk [of] disciplinary action from the ASA [Advertising Standards Authority], angels have been known to come at a great speed, and to use Axe Excite is entirely at your own risk." [Note: I believe the ASA did pull the ad due to viewer complaints that it was offensive.]
Demographics are changing rapidly, in the world in general and in the United States in particular. Some businesses understand this and actively promote intercultural competence among its employees. Others, like Axe, simply play to what is most base in human nature in what I can only assume to be a cynical belief that what is base is what has won in society. They can do that if they want. It may even make them rich beyond all the dreams of avarice. But let's not kid ourselves. A society that relentlessly tells the majority of the world's peoples that you are not fully human and beautiful the way you were born (and, if I might add, the way God created human diversity) has something wrong and oppressive about it. And a society that tempts the very angels to fall does not bring heaven to earth. It brings something quite the opposite.

    But man, proud man,
    Dressed in a little brief authority,
    Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
    His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
    Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
    As make the angels weep.
          Shakespeare, Measure for Measure. Act ii. Sc. 2


Castles Crowns and Cottages said...

As you usher in the topic with your keen insight and precision, that last quote, says it all. When you told me about this last ad, it just made me shudder for a moment to be human. Thank GOD for grace.


Debbie said...

Ruben, I have been mighty offended by that "Hail to the V" commercial ... talk about gross and stupid.
I saw something very interesting on www.themoviebox.net. A preview for a new documentary about very dark black women and the shame they feel at being very dark. It is heart rending. It is called "Dark Girls." Fair skin has been the prize always ... How special is it if you're Latina or Latino with blue or green eyes and you look white. Born lucky.
Great post.


M.A.the2nd said...

Ruben ..... chilling and thought-provoking. So, so wrong on so many levels. The sad thing is that advertising doesn't even stop there ..... if you have white skin then you have to be bronzed, tan and golden. I say enough this is ridiculous! Where are the parameters of humanity that call out to say "We are individual .... and each of us is unique and beautiful. Different, yes but that is a good thing that we can all embrace for that is how we learn and move forward".

Amazing as always
best wishes

Nezzy said...

You always seem to stretch this gals not so simple mind.

I agree, so many ads are offensive to so many be it race, creed or color.

Good thing we serve such a forgivin' Heavenly Father.

I just wanted to pop in and wish you and your sweetheart a very blessed and beautiful Christmas!

God bless ya Man!!! :o)

Jeri Landers said...

I have not seen any of these ads, but I know that the present media culture goes out of it's way to offend Christians. You cannot offend Muslims, or Buddhists or Hindus or Jews, but it is always open season on Christians. I hate it, but it is true.

Since the beginning, society has always tried to dictate what is or isn't real beauty. Either you are too thin, too fat, too white (you REALLY NEED A TAN!)too dark, your hair is too curly or too straight, and on and on it goes. I also believe, however, that we have become overly sensitive about many things.
We are who we are, and must love ourselves that way, just as God does.

Dawne Boynton Polis said...

Well said, Ruben. You articulate what we feel whenever one of those ads comes on, and we hurry to mute the sound, but not before the image of strutting, sashaying, push-up-bra sporting Victoria Secret "angels" burn their image into our retinas. Whoever knew angels had such luxurious manes, or such spectacular cleavage? Perhaps they're a rival gang of the Axe angels?