The controversy that has surrounded the UK screening of a Budweiser commercial featuring native Americans drinking beer suggests a growing need for the advertising community to be more sensitive to racial stereotyping as an international issue.
The commercial was generally well received in the UK and is said to have had a positive effect on Budweiser sales. But in the US, where the spot was not even shown, reports about it sparked considerable protest because of its alleged insensitivity to the problem of alcoholism among native Americans.
Defending its work, the agency concerned argued that British consumers would not make the association with alcoholism. Certainly it seems clear the agency did not set out to upset American Indians; rather it was trying to capture the imagery of a proud and authentic people.
But if the agency’s intentions were honourable, there remains a fundamental problem. This is illustrated by a comment that one British trade journalist made to the US press: referring to the commercial’s main protagonist he said: “He’s a native American, he expresses genuine American values. That’s not offensive.”
Perhaps it’s not to people who accept the use of racial stereotyping to sell products. And it may not be offensive to people who live on this side of the Atlantic in ignorance of the problems and sensitivities of America’s original native population.
But to an increasing number of people around the world racial stereotyping is unacceptable, and ignorance of local sensitivities is no longer an excuse. More pragmatically, in the global market campaigns which depend upon racial associations or stereotypes for their effect have a nasty habit of rebounding on the manufacturer’s domestic market.
In the case of Budweiser, the row over this commercial has generated a considerable amount of negative coverage in the US, even though the commercial could never be shown there.
Those who persist in regarding each country as an isolated market would do well to give the last word to a representative of the American Indians themselves.
“It’s like if the tree falls in the woods and there’s no one there to hear it,” Stanley Knick, director of the Native American Resource centre in Pembroke, North Carolina, told the Wall Street Journal. “It doesn’t matter if no native person ever sees that advertisement, the stereotype is still being carried on.”