Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Icon vs. stereotype

There was an interesting little segment on NPR yesterday (yes, I'm the kind of guy who listens to NPR while sitting in the drive-thru at Chic-Fil-A) about the "synthetic wilderness of childhood". It was a pretty high-brow story - and I only glommed onto a very low brow piece of it: kids see a lot more fake animals than real ones.

For instance, I took my son to the State Farm Show in Harrisburg when he was about 18 months old. I kept pointing out all the cows - there were approximately 75 cows in one holding area. He looked blankly from one brown animal to another, and then finally pointed to "cows" when he saw a cartoon of a cow on a little girl's shirt.

This doesn't surprise me. His exposure to cows has been limited to the iconic black and white cow. Actual cows - brown ones that weigh several tons and fill the hall with enough methane to heat Belarus are decidedly nuetral in communication. It isn't until later that we are exposed to the nuances of the black angus steak.

But in the mean time, the Chic-Fil-A cows are trying to desperately point us away from eating beef - Eat Chikin! Not only does this campaign teach children poor spelling, it confuses the dairy cow/beef cow issue. I know why they did it: a black angus cow standing on a billboard A) is hard to see and B) is just not iconic enough to get from 500 feet. I don't have to dial up David Ring to gather his thought process on this one.

And as a creative, I realize that many might accuse me of "over thinking" this a little. That's okay - I'm overthinking on my own dime. Not a client's.

So anyway - kids learn, from a very young age, some very iconic ideas of animals: zebras have stripes, elephants are gray with a long nose, Giraffes are tall and yellow, dogs are usually similar to cows but smaller, with their tongue hanging out.

These icons (available on baby bedsheets, etc.) bear only the most general shapes and colors of the animals they portray. My mother-in-law was showing us pictures of her African safari, and my son - who is brilliant - was much more interested in naming off the animals depicted in the children's book she brought him than in seeing actual wild animals. I shouldn't say more interested, but he was certainly better at naming them - down to "wart hog" and "Gazelle" - in the illustrations.

We are raised and educated to simplify. To recognize icons. To draw knee-jerk-meaning from things like colors and shapes. And thus, stereotyping is born. An anthropologist could do a much better job with this train of thought, but as a guy who spent the morning mousing through 85 pages of stock photography I noticed myself jumping to a very specific set of images and found myself wondering: am I being racist?

I hadn't selected a single image that showed an ethnic couple, frolicking on the sand. Why? I couldn't tell you - except that I was sort of on automatic pilot and I suppoes I was picking images that evoked my feelings of being at the beach as a child. An experience decidedly short on ethnic minorities.

So I went back through and carefully considered the ethnic shots. And found myself thinking: this one seems fake. this one seems forced. These couples would NEVER hang out together.

Stock photography has a way of doing that - Art Directors - can I get a hell yeah?

But its hard to quantify why these couples would never hang out together - is it something about how preppy the black couple is? Or something deeper, rooted in my own lack of experience with minorities on beaches?

I found a great picture of three kids flying over the dunes - that one seemed pretty legit. I could see those kids. I could be one of those kids. They seemed real. But the 35 year old african american man with the barbecue tongs, the pink tennis shirt and the "Alive with Pleasure" cackle? I wasn't buying it. And if it wa true, it was a truth I'd just as soon stick my head in the sand about.

Trust me, no self-respecting african-american man wants to be associated with that picture. I guess I just give the black guys I've met more credit than that.

So do you pull the McDonalds and just stuff a thousand skin colors and a couple wheel chairs in every spot, no matter how forced, confusing, or downright obvious? It seems like you should - this is the age of inclusion. But on the other hand, doesn't casting minorities willy-nilly come with baggage of its own? "You can't say that about us. Only we can say that about us."

Is the fact that I'm conscious of race make me a racist? Or that I might think it's inappropriate to stick the only Indian guy in the spot behind the cash register?

I've always admired Arnold/Volkswagen for doing such an elegant job of casting diversity without it ever getting in the way of the spots - in fact, it seems to bring the brand closer to all of us. I can't give Crispin the same Kudos - their German GTI ads were sort of the antithesis of diversity.

So the question is: In what circumstances does a person of nationality cease to be a person and become an icon?

And I don't mean "after their first feature on MTVCribs", Fox.


Jetpacks said...

Have you noticed the proliferation of mixed race couples in ads? Usually see it in cig and alcohol ads. Kool's new mainstay is a superhip black guy (is it OK to still say "black?") who is always paired with either a white or Hispanic chick. (If I capitalize Hispanic, shouldn't I also capitalize white and black?)

Buck Super Stereo said...

two things about your rant....

1) my brilliant daughter is brillianter than your son because she has a plastic wildebeast and could name a picture of the wild beast on wiki the other day (the wife was questioning me on whether i had identified the toy properly...silly woman).

2) you're overthinking the race thing. my black friend worked the grill at OBX two summers ago. i swear to god that he wears pink. and he does certainly have a big laugh, so i think he has switched from corporate investments to professional print talent. or someone i was with sold the pic to corbis.

James-H said...

I stand corrected. And corrected.

Make the logo bigger said...

I think the blatant urbanization/adsploitation in everything is out of control. Get your Fash On. Chillabration. Bling this, phat that, pimp this.

"In what circumstances does a person of nationality cease to be a person and become an icon? "

When W+K does the spot.


It’s the difference between good and great. Knowing when to push right up to the edge without going over.

James-H said...

Good point, MTLB. The snarky answer here is, Weiden probably rarely uses stock photography.so they aren't forced to deal with the ramifications of stereotypes.