By Special Correspondent Thea Lim
In which I bravely attempt to come up with a single test that explains just why an ad is problematic.
Reader Alralei tipped us off on these 542542 TV ads, where everyday Americans come across a conundrum (like “How can I tell my girlfriend’s bra size?” “Can you milk a hamster?” and “Where do natural extensions come from?”) and then text their question to 542542, where a suave geek and a busty brunette make clever banter until they find the answer.
542542 sounds like a pretty cool service, but their ads are kinda…ick. They’re all cleverly titillating – coy enough to be safe for TV – yet, like many things that trade in taboos, every video I watched teeters on offensive.
In the video Alralei highlighted for us, two black women are in the salon. What kind of hair is in a natural extension, they wonder. They text 542542 and lo and behold, our urbane investigators are standing in a Eastern European (?) village, watching locals shave a yak for natural extensions.
TV ads on average are 30 seconds long – sometimes the problematics whiz by so fast you don’t know where to start.
So the ad trades in stereotypes about what black women like, do and say. It makes a mockery of black standards of beauty. Like, can you believe those fools wear yak hair??? (And it goes without saying that the ad doesn’t recognise these standards are influenced by our history of slavery and colonisation.) Then the ad ends with one of the women cackling OH NO YOU BETTER NOT BE PUTTING YAK HAIR UP IN MY WEAVE, which really (according to me) is only offensive because of the context of our TV culture: does a black woman ever gets to be on TV when the topic of discussion is neither weaves, nor nails, ice cream/chocolate or black men?
But the ad also shows Eastern Europeans (honestly, I actually don’t know where the “village” is supposed to be -Eastern Europe? Central Asia? Greenland?) to be backwards and sneaky for lining unsuspecting Americans with vile animal hair.
This creates an odd hierarchy of Others; at the top of the tier we have the 542542 agents, the sophisticated white folks that the viewer is supposed to identify with (of course, the man is ultimately more trustworthy than the woman), followed by the black women who are laughable, but still familiar, and at the bottom we have the Eastern Europeans, who are essentially dehumanised. (And notice how this pits people who should have solidarity with each other – black Americans and non-white folks in other parts of the world – against each other.)
Yet these ads are worth discussing because they are confusing – even after diagramming the “Extensions” ad for you, I’m still not sure where the problem lies. The rest of the ads (I didn’t watch all of them) are more sexist than anything else, objectifying bodies and enforcing gender roles.
But here’s a suggestion. In criticising ads, maybe the ultimate test of Good or Bad comes down to this question: who has agency in the ad? Consumerism after all, is about power. I would argue that whoever has agency in an ad comes out ok in the end.
If we look at the Chicago-Lake Liquors ads that Tami deconstructed for us a few weeks ago, they all feature a white person talking in exaggerated Ebonics. Arguably the people who wrote these ads wanted to poke fun at both white and black folk – like, look at these funny uptight white people trying to be down! – but ultimately the only people who lose in the ads are the black folks; because they don’t get screen time, they don’t get to represent themselves, and most importantly, they don’t get to buy. They don’t get to consume, which is a pretty big insult considering that ads are supposed to want to sell to anyone.
It’s the same with the oodles of beer commercials that hype dudeliness. The ads are sexist because (among other things) we rarely see the women consuming the product or using their buyer power to make decisions for themselves. Without that power, they are just props for the product.
From this point of view, the black women in the 542542 ad are laughable, but the joke is really on the Eastern Europeans who couldn’t possibly (by the ad’s portrayal) ever use 542542.
In another ad, two blondes in bikinis text 542542 for a good daiquiri recipe. They’re made to look interchangeable and vapid, but because they are in charge in the ad, they don’t come out looking bad at all. Unsurprisingly, they come across as less foolish than the black women in “Extensions” – yet both pairs of women at the end of the day come out okay.
Or do they? Am I over-intellectualising this? Does the question of “who gets to call the shots/who is the buyer?” become irrelevant in an ad that plain makes women of colour look stupid?
The above picture of an all-American yak courtesy of pennlive.com