You may promote explicit violence – indeed video games companies have built an industry out of it; squalid sex is all right, too – what would the tabloids be without it? There’s nothing wrong with reckless gambling, either, as the largely unchallenged ads from spread-betting organisations amply demonstrate. But one thing no brand manager ever, ever dabbles with is the “R”-vice, racism. It stands to reason, doesn’t it? If you want a future.
Yet this week two prominent brand ambassadors find themselves accused of precisely that – with, one suspects, very different outcomes in view. The first is Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan; the second, Conservative Party blond bombshell Boris Johnson, prospective candidate as Mayor of London.
Khan is the Indian David Beckham, a brand in his own right who will endorse almost anything, at a price. But he seems to have come a cropper with a burst of TV commercials earlier this month, where he was seen to laud the virtues of skin-whitening cream Fair and Handsome. Clearly there’s a huge market for this sort of thing on the sub-continent, it’s just that no one likes to admit it in public. Khan had apparently wrestled with his conscience over taking on this assignment, but a reported £650,000 fee won out in the end. Though he may now be regretting his greed. The fact that the ads were nicely timed to coincide with India’s celebration of its 60th Independence anniversary has generated a barrage of acrimonious criticism in which Khan has been vilified as a despicable Uncle Tom figure truckling to the outmoded colonialist values of the ‘gora’ Raj.
Moving on from face-bleaching to character blackening, Boris Johnson has also been in the eye of a hurricane-strength storm this week. Johnson, with the possible exception of David Cameron the most prominent representative of the current Conservative Party, seems a shoo-in as the Tory Mayoral candidate, and as such the first real threat that two-times Mayor Ken Livingstone has ever faced. That at least is the view of the Left – from Polly Toynbee in the Guardian to Compass, a Brownite pressure group – who have embarked on a comprehensive character assassination of Bumbling Boris which merely dignifies his status as a serious candidate.
To allege that Johnson is a maverick at odds with the modernising, softer stance of the party leadership is not exactly a killer propaganda blow. Precisely the same was, and is, said of Mayor Livingstone – a man currently revisiting his own maverick credentials with an imaginatively crafted oil barter deal involving radical Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. And look what incalculable harm that’s done him over the years. No, Cameron would probably be the first to agree that Johnson will be much better off where he’s likely to end up being – out of his hair and frontbench politics.
Far more insidious has been the attempt to uncover Johnson’s alleged racist leanings. Admittedly, it’s not hard to pick out ill-judged comments from Johnson’s long career in politics and journalism. Among them, his skilful one-liners excluding the citizens of Liverpool and Plymouth from considering him in their future voting intentions. So it was with relish that his detractors were able to brandish the following little gem: “It is said that the Queen has come to love the Commonwealth, partly because it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies.”
Racist stereotypes in ads
The use of a derogatory term meaning “little black child” would have meant certain career suicide for any conventional brand or brand advocate enunciating it. These days, humour shades into offence with unpredictable suddenness, as Cadbury found to its cost when it launched Trident chewing gum. The launch ad (largely successful in commercial terms) featured a so-called “dub poet” speaking in rhyme with a parodistic Caribbean accent. Over 500 people complained to the Advertising Standards Authority, mostly along the lines that the ad was offensive because it depicted a racist stereotype that demeaned black or Caribbean people and their culture. Maybe it did. The ASA certainly thought so, because it banned the ad. But then, in the interests of moral consistency, why did the ASA let Wrigley’s Orbit ad off the hook later? This also featured “demeaning” racial stereotypes – Asian, black and oriental among them. The key point seems to have been that a Caucasian couple were included in the burlesque line-up of stooges. So humiliation is all right, then – so long as it’s multicultural.
Luckily perhaps for Boris, although he’s prone to unpredictable bursts of risqué humour he’s no ordinary brand. Ethical quagmires seem to leave his ratings in the polls unmoved. This Norman Tebbit in clown’s uniform, as his opponents dub him, has already got the rank and file of London taxi drivers behind him. And with a cohort of political support like that, who needs a political manifesto that stands up to scrutiny?