Is racism without malice just thoughtlessness?

7 Jul

Nothing stirs the public pot quite like accusations of racism. But I ask the question: without the intent to be derogatory, is it racist or just merely ill-advised.

A perfect example is the new campaign for Eska Water. Agency KBS+P dressed up some actors to appear as cartoonish indigenous people trying to protect the purity of the water from getting mixed with OJ.

The backlash this week was instantaneous.

Poster for Eska Water featuring stereotyped native warriors

Making matters stickier for the advertiser, the mineral water is extracted from Algonquin lands.

You can watch the spot here and decide for yourself.

Eska’s Facebook page started taking on outraged comments immediately and they quickly disabled comments. A Boycott Eska Water page is now up and doing brisk business.

In a video posted on YouTube, Mohawk activist Clifton Nicholas asks, “How acceptable would it be if somebody was in blackface?”

So what do you think?


15 Responses to “Is racism without malice just thoughtlessness?”

  1. Amy July 7, 2011 at 6:19 am #

    Just like ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking the law, just because you didn’t know you were being racist does not excuse racist behavior.
    Yeah, “brown-face” on really pale guys? Come on! Did no one think this was in the least bit wrong while they were filming it?
    This may be okay in a Saturday Night Live sketch, but not in an advertisement meant for mass-consumption (I mean the ad, not necessarily the water).

  2. Doug Brown July 7, 2011 at 6:47 am #

    The process of the approval of this spot can only be imagined Amy. Oh to have been a fly on the wall when this concept was presented to the client.

  3. Gord Wright July 7, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    The concept is a great one, but the careless implementation is where the fault is. Integrity would place the Algonquin natives as the protectors of the waters. The spot, and the whole process, could have been bridging instead of degrading.

  4. kate houston July 7, 2011 at 9:06 am #

    The “poll” doesn’t give an option of non-offense. It’s all skewed toward the negative. I hope these results won’t be taken any more seriously than this spot should be.

    While I don’t like this spot because it has shoddy quality and “hipster” humour, it’s not racist. It’s highlighting a “purity” myth that goes back in time so, obviously, historical “warriors” will be featured. It’s meant to be a humorous spot so it’s surprising they would be cartoonish. It’s not as though superstitious white boy was depicted as anything above moronic.

    Racism implies inferiority regarding one race and superiority regarding another. This spot has nothing to do with either.

  5. jen July 7, 2011 at 9:36 am #

    well said kate.

  6. moe July 7, 2011 at 9:41 am #

    I imagine the process involved alcohol fueled, giggling fraternity boys thinking themselves very clever by setting up the gag with a South American blow dart followed by that final tableau. Nothing says funny like a trio of obvious geeky misfits pretending to be fierce, threatening and, in this case, tribal warriors.

    Racist? Yes, on a technicality but more than that, it’s lazy, derivative and an idea that should have been left on the flip chart back in the initial brain storming session.

    Taking a bit of a side trip, Doug, at what point does shaping an advertising campaign go from knowing the target audience to profiling based on economic, sex and race based statistical information? Cars targeted for a male audience sell better with a scantily dressed model draped over them. Selling a vehicle to a woman, then pack it with quiet, happy kids and groceries. Want to target an economically growing ethnic group? Have Ricardo Montabaln point out (purely fictional) Carpathian burled elm interior panels because he speaks like they do…

    What is the acceptable level of sexual and racial bias in advertising?

    Anyway, I think this ad campaign is offensive not because it’s insulting a specific racial group but because it insults the intelligence of the consumer. And it really isn’t very funny.

  7. Doug Brown July 7, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    > Gord, that’s an interesting perspective. Going for laughs is where this one starts down the slippery slope.

    > Kate, the campaign has insulted many people, most definitely our First Nations folks, but you’re right I could have added in a “I’m not at all offended” option. Your final comment was just restating the headline without the empathy for those who were insulted. Thanks for your opinion.

    > Moe, those are good questions. There is a lot of knee-jerking to things that have traditionally worked. But we may never be totally free from them! As to your last point, I hate to see average advertising get under people’s skin. At least the idea could have been brilliant!

  8. Mark July 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm #

    It would appear that Eaux Vives Water Inc. (Eska) has crumbled under the pressure and have pulled the entire campaign.

    “In light of concerns that have been expressed over the past few days, ESKA Water is bringing an immediate halt to its current advertising and marketing campaign. All television, print and collateral representations of the campaign will be removed from market as quickly as possible. In addition, ESKA Water wishes to apologize to all those who may have found the campaign and its images disrespectful. Certainly, that was never our intention. In the days to come company officials will be meeting with local community leaders to reinforce ESKA’s commitment to working in partnership and to ensure that future marketing efforts reflect both the strength of our premium brand and the values of those in the community.”

    Jim Delsnyder
    President and CEO
    Eaux Vives Water Inc. (ESKA)

    Eska drops its “Eskan Warriors” campaign from KBS+P.

  9. Doug Brown July 7, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    Mark, what a timely comment. That’s brilliant to know. Thanks for sharing that. Clearly Eska has bowed to internal and external pressures.

  10. Chris Burdge July 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    Did you ever get a gut instinct (aka hunch) about something, like, gee I wonder if this might offend anyone, naaaaahhh… I just envisioned those Captain Morgan “we got all night” tv spots.

    That, or a few hours worth of focus groups could have saved them thousands in wasted production and media dollars. Alas, they now join the ranks of Motrin, Habitat and Nestle (pretty good company actually) in the marketing gaffe hall of fame…

  11. Doug Brown July 7, 2011 at 5:38 pm #

    It’s like those logos Chris where if you look at the negative space you see outrageous images, like Lisa Simpson giving head. Only there is no negative space here that needs to be peered into. 😉

  12. tom hammarberg July 8, 2011 at 9:05 am #

    just as offensive is the painfully contrived 1st comment on the youtube video:
    -uploaded by ESKA
    -submitted by a user who joined youtube 3 weeks ago and who has only made positive comments on ESKA products.


  13. Doug Brown July 8, 2011 at 9:14 am #

    He used the word hilarious. Suspect a plant in the comments section.

    Here is the comment Tom is referring to:
    “This is a great ad. It hits the nail on the head; capturing the purity of this water with wonderful humour. It is totally memorable. I have passed this on to friends who find it hilarious also. I do expect that it will get some of those supposedly ‘politically correct’ people’s nickers in a twist. But humour will always do that to someone. Water is water. I never thought about which brand to buy…that is until this ad caught my attenttion. Way to go Eska – Now where can I buy it?”

    Responding in kind: “YES! This slice of uproarious comic ingenuity has prompted me to run down to my nearest quality supermarket to purchase this fine product. HAHAHA! I can’t stop laughing! And buying Eska Water!”

    It IS embarrassing.

  14. kate houston July 10, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    @Doug, you’re right there was no empathy in my answer. In contentious issues – for instance, where I might be accusing someone of something abhorrent like racism – I try to keep emotion out of it so that I can be objective and fair (hence my pointing out the bias in your poll options).

    As such, I agree there was no empathy in my reply. However, I’m not sure how it is that I restated your headline, so I’ll try to be clearer.

    Is racism with malice racism? Yes. Is racism without malice racism? Yes. Is being derogatory racism? Not necessarily. Is insult to a race racism? Not necessarily. Is lack of political correctness racism? Not necessarily.

    Racism is distinguishable by the presumption of superiority of one race over another. This spot does not have that. If you’re looking for an emotional response from me – I think the spot is juvenile and every single character is depicted as moronic. My guess is that the demographic is young guys – a group that often gets potrayed as idiots.

    @Moe, your side trip brings up some great questions!

  15. Doug Brown July 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Thanks for taking the time to respond Kate.

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