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Coming soon to a supermarket near you: Stereotyping, you muppet!

February 20, 2002 ~ 3:04 p.m.

A small controversy has broken out, mostly on the opinion page of the London Metro, about the stereotyping of ethnic groups. Sainsbury’s, a British supermarket chain, has done an advertisement in which white British cooking sensation Jamie Oliver “speaks” Chinese and performs back-flips, karate chops and other martial arts moves in the 30-second commercial to push Sainsbury’s new line of Asian food products.

Before we even discuss the controversy surrounding the spots, it must be said that the Sainsbury’s commercials featuring the slack-jawed, Estuary-accented Jamie Oliver are notoriously annoying. They started out featuring Mssr. Oliver doing what he does best—behaving like the average lout he no doubt would be if not for his love and talent for cooking, responsible alone for his fame. The first few commercials centered on his penchant for playing touch-football in his flat with his friends. Gradually, they featured Oliver: offering a friend advice, over the phone, on how to cook Italian food; shopping with his grandma and acting—a term which applied to Oliver is most generous—like it’s the coolest activity; walking out of the store burdened with six cases of wine only to discover that, oh yeah, I came here on a moped; driving over his mom’s house to escape his wife’s low-fat “malarkey”; and now the Oriental cooking commercials. I suspect by now it’s not so much the ethnically sensitive nature of the latest Jamie Oliver commercial, but the fact that people just can’t take anymore Jamie Oliver commercials period.

The lead letter on last Friday’s Metro, entitled “Don’t tease Chinese,” brands the advertisement “a disgraceful display of racism.” The letter-writer’s point is that the Chinese (and other Far Eastern Asians) are too easily made the butt of jokes. Essentially, this commercial conspires to “not make me [the author] feel proud of who I am.”

Point taken. If , say, Jamie Oliver—and this is just an example—was to suddenly don a white pleated skirt, smash plates in his kitchen and chop baklava to bazoukie music to introduce Sainsbury’s new line of Greek foods, there would be righteous outrage.

Or, to really drive the point home, what about Oliver affecting a Jamaican accent, wearing a Rasta cap and sporting a joint from the side of his mouth to stir up interest in Caribbean cooking? Actually, this last example must be credited to the Chinese-Briton author of the letter. Again, point taken. Why poke fun at the Chinese whereas nobody would dare mock Afro-Caribbean culture?

Well, actually, advertisers have even done that. As a letter in the very next issue of the Metro from a black gentleman pointed out, a Nescafe commercial features a young black dude fixing a bald spot in the center of his afro hairdo with a spray can of “instant hair,” and getting the inspiration to spray a comically giant afro on the top of his car and then drive around town, his vehicle thusly decorated. Another commercial, for another product, explores urban myths and asks, “Are all black men good dancers?” To which the answer, courtesy of a hapless black teenager who appears to have completely lost the plot when it comes to dancing in tune to the beat, is an enthusiastic “no!” Ethnocentric? Certainly. Amusing? You bet. The black author of the letter certainly thinks so, and this is his point: Just relax and learn how to take a joke.

I am as disgusted by the out-of-control nature of our politically correct society as most other normal people, in which we have to watch every single word we utter and which has declared certain law-enforcement tactics such as racial profiling unconstitutional. (Believe you me, there had better be some really heavy-handed racial profiling going on at airport security checkpoints from now on if one expects a serious chance of surviving a flight, goddamn it.)

Then again, part of me can’t help but side with the ethnically Chinese writer of that letter. Did she have a right to feel insulted and horrified for her culture, at least as it is seen by those insensitive Western marketing eyes? Her outrage is easily understood. But is it just as easily defended? In this uneasy PC environment, the only answer I can provide is a vague yes-and-no. I definitely don’t think it’s in the best interests of advertisers to invoke cultural stereotypes. If Sainsbury’s is trying to generate sales of its Chinese food products among its white customer base by making Jamie Oliver, every bit the honky that he looks, talk in Chinese and perform computer-enhanced martial art moves, then that is indeed deplorable. It’s certainly not advisable business savvy, at the very least.

My suggestion? In future, just treat commercials in the way for which they were intended—as an opportunity to drag your ass from the couch and grab a cold drink from the fridge. Then you won’t know what the fuck is going on in the world of advertising and future controversies can be easily avoided.

– M.E.M.

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Copyright © 2001-2007 by M.E. Manning. All material is written by me, unless explicitly stated otherwise by use of footnotes or bylines. Do not copy or redistribute without my permission.

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