Where’s the Morality in Advertising Ethics?

If you think the era of political correctness has taught U.S. and European advertisers to create campaigns that are sensitive and intelligent, think again. Advertisers are still quite content to play into fears, attitudes and stereotypes associated with homosexuality, sex, ethnic minority, obese (“plus-size”), youth markets, gender and race. While some ads are sneakily suggestive, others are almost shamelessly overt. As consumers, we absorb them and unconsciously incorporate them into our own individual value systems. As a result, our cultural communications system, (how we think about the “other”) can undermine the values of our democracy if we are not vigilant in identifying and correcting behavior that is unfair to certain segments of our society.

In a recent advertising campaign by Zooppa, a global social network founded in 2007 near Venice Italy for creative talent, has released a contest video promoting
Prep skin ointment, for red skin; like the condition known as rosacea, to the Italian marketplace. The video features an actor who appears to be Italian, dressed-up as an American Indian wearing a headdress, wig, and war paint—the European equivalent to Italian—American actor Espera Oscar di Corti, better known as Iron Eyes Cody. Cody became widely known for his “crying Indian” role in the “Keep America Beautiful” Public Service Announcement (PSA) in the early 1970s.

Has European advertising descended to a point of denigrating Native Americans in the same fashion as its American counterpart? Just watching the nuances in the newly released Prep video tells the tale of a vanishing race. The white male boom operator shoves the “Indian” aside, as the white female make-up artist “scalps” him of his headdress and wig leaving him naked to the viewing audience, implying his deserved loss of culture as a non-person because of his red skin.

The Coswell Company—which acquired the brand Prep in 2009—sought to expand its target audience, which was mostly male, to now include the female buying
public. For Coswell to achieve its objectives the company decided to turn to the creative community of Zooppa, which partners with international companies
bringing its community members opportunities to create commercial ads for leading brands. Companies, like Coswell, develop a creative brief describing their brand’s attributes, their target audience, and the objectives of the campaign. Zooppa community members are then invited to create ads in various formats such as producing a viral video, designing an animated sequence, creating a print ad, and even writing scripts or concepts for potential ads.

Once members upload their content, clients generally select and award the best video; but many campaigns also allow community members to vote on content submissions in order to determine additional award–winners. Zooppa awards cash and special prizes to the creators based on this feedback from the client, the
community and Zooppa staff. Coswell awarded the video $5,600 for the following reasons: “The characters themselves, especially the redskin, are able
to develop new situations, interpret new stories and become icons of the web.” It appears unethical advertising has given license to the esoteric evils of cultural
racialization and stereotype just to increase its profit margins. When supermodel Karlie Kloss paraded down the runway in headdress, fringed bikini and turquoise-studded belt she appalled consumers and Native Americans alike. Thank goodness the campaign was axed by a series of complaints, but the damage was already done.

The phenomenon of raced-based marketing continues to be a factor in the racial tensions of our media-driven age. However, it has also created an impenetrable
brick wall; making many of today’s consumers “racially unconscious” as well as toward other minority groups (gays, ethnic minority, plus size, etc.) because they
assume that the most egregious institutional and social forms of discrimination have been overcome.

Unless and until consumers evaluate and make a commitment against unethical marketing behaviors, negative consequences continue. For example, young people of color disproportionately experience a variety of negative consequences of alcohol due to the proliferation of outdoor advertising in minority neighborhoods. Among youth ages 12 to 17, youth reporting “two or more races” had the highest rate of current alcohol use (defined as at least one drink in the past 30 days) at 16.7%. Next were White youth at 16.1%, Hispanic youth at 15.2%, American Indian/Alaska Native youth at 11.9%, African American youth at 10.6%, and Asian-American youth at 6.5%.2 (alcoholjustice.com).

When will it all stop? The most reasonable way to dismantle negative advertising is to make the consumer aware not only of the denigration of peoples being
portrayed, but the consumer as well. The mindset of the consumer must be changed so the techniques used by corporations are no longer profitable.

The consumer assimilates the ideology presented to them without question. Constant exposure makes them assume that’s the way things are, but that is not the
case. As consumers we can suppress media discrimination simply by not buying offensive race-based or sexually orientated products. Racism and discrimination
won’t go away until the myths that fuel it do. Rock and Roll legend Patti Smith sums it up with the lyrics, “We the people have the power to redeem the work of
fools upon the meek.”

Zooppa/Coswell’s advertisment for red skin can be viewed here.

Julianne Jennings (Nottoway) is an anthropologist.

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