So it should come as no surprise that in the wake of Falling Down, a film widely interpreted as the ultimate expression of white-male angst, the advertising community is scrambling to respond. Just as it has in other parts of society, the film has touched a nerve among advertising executives. But for them, it's as much about creativity and free expression as it is about violence or racism.
Falling Down, which has made $36 million in five weeks of release, hits hard in a hyper-politically correct world. In the film, Michael Douglas' laid-off defense worker takes on stereotypes such as Latino gang members, Korean grocers, fast food employees and city workers in an era when stereotyping is no longer tolerated.
While ad execs aren't literally picking up bats or grenade launchers, many are ready for an ideological offensive against a society they believe has become too politically correct. Some are even identifying with the sentiment voiced in the film by D-FENS when he wonders aloud, "You mean I'm the bad guy? How'd that happen?"
Steve Hayden, chairman/chief creative director of BBDO Los Angeles, says his agency's experience on a recent ad for the Macintosh PowerBook illustrates how dicey the situation has become. The spot, which features a white boy and a boy of Hawaiian/Portuguese descent, shows the two kidding back and forth. It closes with the Hawaiian youngster asking the white youth if he can use the Mac. The white kid teasingly says, "No." Says Hayden, "We got calls that it was a racist commercial. One accused us of depicting an Asian person being put down. Another said it was a clear-cut case of Japan-bashing. In Europe, you'd say there are nuts in the world. In the U.S., you take the crazies seriously now."
It's a sentiment not just expressed in advertising's white male bastions. "I think white folk are getting tired of being white folk," says Joe Muse, chairman of the ethnically diverse L.A. agency Muse Cordero Chen. "The portrayal of what it is to be a white man has taken on this altered reality. Given that advertising is largely a white male club, I'm sure it's struck a chord among the brethren. The frustrations are legitimate."
A recent PSA created by Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein is typical of the mindset that plagues creative departments. The ad, for Partnership for a Drug Free America, takes place on a street corner inhabited by drug dealers. "Our first inclination was to get a polymorphous group of people so no one would be offended," says Jeff Goodby, a founding partner of the San Francisco agency. But the Harlem community activist who was serving as a consultant said it wouldn't work. "He told us we could put all black, all Hispanics, all white on that corner, but not a mix, because no one would buy it."
Politically correct advertising becomes a vicious cycle, Goodby says. "Television and advertising drive people's perceptions when it comes to all kinds of other things, like how they feel about politics, societal norms, and so on," he explains. "As we narrow the picture, the scope of acceptable imagery, then society does the same."
Others feel more strongly. "It's like we're living in a racist state," says the creative head of a major national agency. "You can't show things the way they are. In ads, an African-American cannot have a dialect, even if reality would say the character does. Use a rapper, but clean him up. America is like a New Age fundamentalist state with everyone squeezed by the religious radical right on one side and the P.C. police on the other."
And therein lies the dilemma. How much of an ad's potential effectiveness is sacrificed to political correctness? "Today, advertising is ever more removed from what the world is about," says Hayden. But, says the Harlem activist, if it doesn't reflect reality, people in the streets won't buy it.
"I'm sick of it," says Muse, whose shop handles ethnic advertising for Nike. "It kills self-expression. If I gotta be rude in order to self-express, I'm probably going to accept my rudeness and counter with a little humility." So in recent Nike spots aimed at urban youths, the agency chose to feature rapper Ice-T.
"Somebody among us has got to start talking straight. Maybe that alone will make things better," says Muse. He's gotten involved with the new International Center for Multicultural Communications, which is designed to help clients assess whether communication will reach or offend the key markets they're targeting. "We need to stand for what we believe in, no matter if it's politically correct."
Copyright Adweek L.P. (1993)