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International Business: Racial stereotypes make marketing messages backfire

Published: Friday, Jan. 27 2012 7:00 a.m. MST

Vice President Joe Biden hosts a Cabinet meeting to discuss the latest efforts to cut waste, fraud, and abuse as part of the administration's campaign to cut waste, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Manuel Balce Ceneta, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Earlier this week in Rochester, N.H., U.S. vice president Joe Biden appeared to mimic a foreign accent while talking about the outsourcing of call center jobs.

“How many times do you get the call,” said Biden, then imitating what many listeners initially assumed to be a subtle Indian accent, “I like to talk to you about your credit card.”

He paused before stating the last two words – possibly remembering that such stereotypes could get him into political trouble – and then resumed his usual manner of speech. New York Magazine suggested the vice president may have actually been imitating a subtle Russian accent, based on his subsequent reference to a Discover Card ad series featuring a less-than-helpful, male Russian call-center worker who claims to be named Peggy (though Biden called him “Nancy”).

Regardless, the incident reminded many of Delaware in 2006 when Biden took some heat for saying, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking.”

Biden claimed the quote was taken out of context and was actually part of a larger statement applauding Indian immigration to the United States. However, some voters felt he was negatively stereotyping Indian Americans, and their outrage reminds us of the dangers that come with the appearance of racial stereotypes.

Racial stereotyping – or its mere appearance – is not only dangerous for politicians, but also for marketers. Australia’s Advertising Standards Bureau banned television commercials by Energy Watch, as the ads used the local stereotype of a door-to-door salesman with a thick Indian accent to promote its energy price comparison services.

Italy’s high-speed rail line, Trenitalia, encountered similar trouble this year when it announced that it would expand its seating classes from two to four: Executive, Premium, Business and Standard. The company was accused of racism for showing, in online campaign images, only white passengers in the top three classes and an Asian family in the lowest class.

Particularly since Standard passengers are not allowed to enter the more expensive cars, some customers felt Trenitalia was stereotyping certain ethnic groups as lower class. The rail company insists it intended nothing of the sort, but its statement alone was not enough to stem the fallout of public perception.

“Taking action following the Internet debate that has developed in recent days surrounding the photograph of the new Frecciarossa, chosen simply to publicize the new services offered and with no obvious intent to offend, Trenitalia has decided to substitute the image on its website,” said Trenitalia in an official statement reported by various European newspapers. “The decision was taken in order not to fuel groundless accusations. The subjects depicted in the images represent the diverse types of clients... that travel everyday on Trenitalia, a reflection of the new Italian society: open and multi-ethnic.”

Local and international firms must take great care to avoid using advertising that projects racial stereotypes or racism. Even if these offenses result from innocent mistakes, image problems can spread fast, especially in a world of angry Twitter mobs wielding “twitchforks” around the clock.

Even when seemingly offensive gaffes are innocent or accidental, I think we can all understand the concern some groups have about the message being sent. An apology would feel all the more necessary if the message expressed blatant prejudices.

In order to treat others as we want to be treated, gaining feedback from any group represented in an advertising campaign, perhaps via focus groups, is a good idea. If advertisers still make an innocent mistake in spite all the precautions taken, even in an off-the-cuff remark, their best bet is to sincerely apologize and hope their audiences will be forgiving.

Adam Wooten is director of translation services at Lingotek. He also teaches a course on translation technology at Brigham Young University. Email: awooten@lingotek.com. Follow him on Twitter at AdamWooten.

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