Sometimes Bad Press is Just Bad.

I am a “dorky white guy in khaki pants” who is staring down the barrel of middle age and is not always quick on the uptake. From time to time I also indulge in the perverse delight of assigning the worst intentions to people’s actions. So, I just had to check out this post about a potentially racist Intel advertisement to see if, and how quickly, I would “get it”, judge how bad it is from my dorky white guy perspective, and try to wrap my mind around how it came to be.

Now, its a little known secret that the goal of advertising is to actually attract people to your company’s products. If you aren’t doing that, you’ve failed. And if you offend people, then you’re moving in the other direction: you’re now paying a lot of money to lose business. I don’t think that even racists are that stupid. So surely anything potentially offensive in the ad had to be inadvertent, and more than that, it must be extremely subtle if nobody at Intel noticed and stopped it, right?

So, I checked out the ad…My eyes focus first on the smug white guy in the center, check. If he was a little heavier with a bad haircut, it would be like looking in a mirror. So far, I kinda like him. Now panning out….oh. Taking it all in now. Wow! Yeah, that’s pretty bad. You can interpret racist messages on a number of levels in this ad, and its not very subtle at all.

Now I feel justified in assuming the worst about Intel’s intentions. Still, I have to believe that Intel didn’t really want to spend a lot of money to lose business. In fact, if you make all the people in the ad the same color, you are left with what is just a really weak ad. Just like every other Intel ad. Just like every other technology ad ever. The fact is that its really hard to communicate something in a visually interesting way that is not inherently visually interesting, which is why I never notice anything about most ads, especially those in print. I have to assume that the advertising folks were so desperate to come up with an idea–any idea–that they lost perspective on what they were cobbling together.

But then, if I were an employee at Intel whose job it was to review the work of the ad department, offer feedback and ultimately approve the ad, I’d like to think that this wouldn’t have slipped past me. “Uh, guys, I’m sure you didn’t intend to do this, but do you see now how this might be interpreted?” And surely there were a lot of people at Intel who reviewed the ad and gave it the green light. So its reasonable to ask what the heck happened? Are these Intel people all white guys in khaki pants who are that much dorkier and slower on the uptake than me? (And if so, why are they making so much more than me?) Actually, I wonder if the folks at Intel patted themselves on the back instead, thinking the ad was “racially diverse”?

Although I think that anyone, regardless of race, who does more than glance at this ad would have to see its implications and at least be a little offended by it, there are the usual folks chiming in to say that they don’t think the ad is racist, and that nobody else should interpret it that way either. I think these folks are missing the point–several points actually, a few of which I’ve already addressed. I’ll be charitable and assume that they, like me, believe that the secondary message was unintentional. But good intentions or lack of bad intentions doesn’t change that fundamental message or its effects. In fact, one could easily argue that being unintentional makes the ad more racist, not less.

Instead these people focus on the surface content of the ad, something along the lines of: these are runners, they represent performance, what’s so racist about that? By their own admission, they are viewing the ad superficially and naively, enough said. Others ask rhetorically if we would be offended if the races were reversed? They then conclude that to view the ad as racist is somehow hypocritical, or at least intellectually inconsistent. I think one could just as easily conclude that any difference in perceptions between two such ads confirms that the ad as it actually is can be perceived as racist.

Still others say that only people who are overly sensitive are going to be offended by this ad. I have a pretty thick skin and am no fan of political correctness, and I find the imagery in this ad distasteful. But lets assume this is a fair assessment: isn’t it a good thing to be sensitive to potentially hurting others? How can you be too sensitive to that? And don’t you think there are people who might have a good reason for being a little more sensitive to certain messages than others, maybe because they have had more than their feelings hurt by such messages before? If you think people are just being “whiny” when they get trampled upon, then you may want to consider a technical management position. Maybe Intel is hiring.

The fact is that whether or not you are offended by the ad personally doesn’t change the fact that the ad is clearly potentially offensive to some and that has social and economic implications that can’t be denied. You can’t dictate how people should feel about something, and they may feel differently about things than you do.

I hope that if Intel responds to this ad, they keep this in mind and face up to this aspect of the ad and its effects instead of trying to weasel out of responsibility for it.

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