The colour of marketing

A couple dances in a cluttered room. The woman, dressed in a mesh camisole and jeans, leans into the man. He is shirtless and his baggy jeans ride low, exposing a hint of his buttocks. Although suggestive, the image is rather...

A couple dances in a cluttered room. The woman, dressed in a mesh camisole and jeans, leans into the man. He is shirtless and his baggy jeans ride low, exposing a hint of his buttocks. Although suggestive, the image is rather typical of a fashion ad, as marketers continue to push the envelope because, frankly, sex sells.

This transit shelter poster for Diesel Jeans, however, became embroiled in controversy when, armed with a dozen-odd complaints from citizens, the City of Burlington ordered its removal. Placed in 600 shelters across the Greater Toronto Area in February, the posters are currently popping up in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal retail windows, where they will remain until August.

Marissa Guerrera, ad manager for Diesel Jeans in Montreal, was astonished by Burlington’s backlash and wondered if it was because the couple in the ad is black. ‘These people took it to an extreme,’ she says. ‘It’s highly likely it could be a racial issue.’ (One person wrote, ‘The [ad] with the woman riding the hip of a bare-chested man looks like they are in the middle of the sex act!’)

Industry representatives, however, are reluctant to call this a racial incident. It’s a tough call, according to Dr. Jean Lock Kunz, co-author of the book Media and Minorities: Representing Diversity in a Multi-Cultural Canada, which was released in March. If the city reacted in a similar manner to the same ad featuring white models, she explains, then it would be because it is too risqué; if they didn’t, then it would be racism. Without a control group, no one can say.

Still, Frank Palmer, president of Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver, believes there would be no difference. ‘My guess is the ad was pulled because some people found it offensive.’ Cesar Virina, general manager at Toronto-based multicultural and ethnic marketing agency Admerasia Canada, which counts Kraft and E*TRADE Canada among its clients, also views the ad as simply too racy for conservative Burlington. ‘I guess Burlington officials don’t consider the transit system as an appropriate place to be thinking of slipping out of your jeans without underwear,’ he says.

But there are numerous provocative ads with white models that haven’t caused a racket, points out Guerrera. La Senza for instance, has run several transit efforts in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver featuring women in lingerie, yet they’ve never endured major criticism. In fact, according to a source, the response was positive: ‘People said they loved the campaigns.’

Burlington’s decision to pull the Diesel ad wasn’t based on any formal process, says Donna Clegg, director of transit and traffic for the municipality. The matter was originally directed to Ad Standards Canada, which evaluates complaints, most of them under Clause 14 of the Code of Advertising Standards dealing with unacceptable portrayals and depictions. Because Ad Standards couldn’t have delivered a decision before the campaign finished, the City asked Mediacom, which places the posters, to remove them, says Clegg, who says transit ads being pulled ‘doesn’t happen regularly.’ According to Kim Warburton, director of marketing and public affairs at Mediacom, it happens only once ‘every couple of years.’

So what prompted Burlington to pull them? Clegg can’t really articulate, except to say she saw ‘substance to the complaints in terms of the suggestive context.’ Still, she admits there are more provocative ads cropping up today than five years ago. Despite the trend, no other campaigns have been forced down as of late. Backlash to a recent Buffalo Jeans transit poster – starring a teen girl, whose long hair appeared to cover her exposed chest – was pulled from a shelter near an elementary school, but remained standing elsewhere.

Because of the Diesel incident, Montreal fashion company Parasuco was advised by the Toronto Transit Authority not to display its artwork in the GTA, according to Stephanie Gingras, assistant coordinator of public relations and marketing. In the Parasuco ad, a woman leans against a man with her jeans cut a little low, exposing a glitter thong. Once again, the couple is African-American. The ad, which had a grievance filed against it in Montreal, was cleared by Les Normes Canadiennes de la Publicité, the Quebec arm of Ad Standards Canada.

A similar Parasuco image was also banned from buses in Manhattan, because it would have been viewed in religious communities, according to Gingras. Parasuco did receive one complaint from an African-American woman in New York: ‘It appears that the women’s movement has taken a major drop backward, as the African Queen is still being cheapened by non-blacks and [by] our own.’ But Gingras says most responses focused on the ad’s provocative nature, not race.

Carol Tator, who teaches a course called ‘Anti-Racism and Equity’ at York University and contributed to the book The Colour of Democracy: Racism in Canadian Society, believes the reaction to these ads does have to do with skin colour. Had the Diesel image depicted a white male exposing his ass it may still have offended the public, she explains, but people are less likely to get riled because they are accustomed to seeing whites in ‘normative situations’ – in a variety of other roles where minorities are, for the most part, absent in advertising. The Diesel ad, on the other hand, which is ‘large and colorful and smashes you in the face’ at transit stops, reflects a typecast – the black ‘as a primitive, sexual creature.’ Tator insists she has delivered the same message – that misrepresentation of minorities isn’t good for business – to Canadian advertisers for 20-odd years, and has seen little change.

At least one Burlington citizen was offended by the Diesel ad in part because of stereotyping. ‘I am a black woman and have attended many dance parties and never has a guy’s pants been ready to fall off,’ she writes in a letter. ‘I object to this smutty and degrading image thrown in my face….’

That’s not to say Diesel didn’t have benevolent intentions here. In fact, the ad, part of its global marketing effort, ties back to a lifestyle magazine it produced that mocks the ignorance of affluent American culture, where celebs raise money for African countries they can’t even spell. In the satirical glossy, the elite of Africa gather at glittery fashion parties to support AmericAid, which has discovered that ‘the primitive, small nations of North America really deserve attention.’

A longitudinal study conducted by Dr. Kunz, which scrutinized ads in Maclean’s magazine during the year 1994, indicates people of colour are well-represented in some categories, while largely under-represented in others. Tourism and cleaning/domestic spots depicted visible minorities regularly, but they were absent from alcohol commercials. And while people of colour are often front-and-centre in jeans ads, companies who flog cosmetics and other high-end products ignore them. Another issue is that ads portraying people of colour are often reserved for cultural magazines and ethnic-specific media, according to Kunz.

There aren’t, however, any recent statistics dealing with this topic, admits Kunz. However, an anecdotal look at the April issues of four national magazines suggests that her points are still valid. For instance, in Flare only eight of 78 advertisements with models included visible minorities and, in five of them, they weren’t the main focus. In Elle Canada, 10 of 86 ads featured people of colour but, again, in half of them, they were among Caucasians.

As for the National Post Business magazine, four of 22 ads represented minorities. Of them, one depicted Martin Luther King, another included an African-American amongst a group of Caucasians, and a third featured an Asian girl and an Asian man for a Council of Biotechnology Information ad, which discussed the development of a nutritional strain of rice. In Canadian House & Home, two of 37 ads with models included non-whites: one for Five Roses flour showed an African-American woman in an apron, while a small ad for the Canadian Diabetes Association depicted an Asian female.

South of the border, minorities are better represented in ads than in Canada, says Admerasia’s Virina. ‘In the ’90s, there has been a conscious effort to show the American public the way it looks,’ he says. ‘But I’m not seeing this in Canada.’

The American Advertising Foundation found that minorities comprised only 4% of the advertising industry in 1999, a number that was grossly disproportionate to the United States’ demographic base, and which likely contributed to the under- and misrepresentation of people of colour in media. As a result, the foundation formed a Business Practices Review, to increase the employment of visible minorities in the ad industry.

There aren’t many people of colour working in the Canadian ad business either, says Virina.

David Cairns, president of Toronto-based consultancy Asylum Thinkgroup, believes the employment picture is also changing. ‘We may have five visible minorities on our staff of 25, whereas three years ago, we had none.’ As more people of colour join the ad business, he adds, representation will pick up. ‘I don’t think the industry has gone to an extreme – where you’d say, ‘there are a lot of Chinese people in ads.’ It’s been an evolution.’

Frank Palmer, who bets his staff consists of about 15% visible minorities, thinks there isn’t a problem with under-representation in Canada’s mainstream ads: ‘We would use [people of colour] where we need to reflect the marketplace.’

Lately, adds Sunni Boot, president of Optimedia Canada, there has been progress. ‘If you look at catalogues now versus even five years ago, there’s a much greater propensity to have representation of the population,’ she says.

Even Kunz agrees there has been improvement, especially in the fashion industry where companies hire more people of colour as models. She believes that minorities will become more vocal about discrimination in advertising. ‘Companies will get the message,’ she says.