Is Ad Theme Racial Harmony Or Angel/devil Stereotype?

Posted: September 12, 1991

If you ride buses in Philadelphia, you may have seen the ad at SEPTA bus shelters.

If you haven't seen the ad before, look at it closely below, decide what you think - then read on.

At the bus shelter at Broad and Callowhill Sts., reactions went something like this:

Woman No. 1: It's about friendship, because they are children. Although with Benetton (the Italian sportswear manufacturer) you never know . . .

Man: The black child's hair looks terrible. It looks like the devil - or (the old "Our Gang" character) Buckwheat.

Woman No. 2: The white child looks happy, and the black child looks sad.

Elsewhere responses were similar. At first glance, people thought the picture was about racial harmony and friendship, but after closer scrutiny, many saw a Shirley Temple and Buckwheat, angel/devil, good/evil symbolism, an old and ugly stereotype of white as right and black as bad.

It's one of several ads in a new Benneton campaign, which includes a nun and a priest in passionate embrace and a bloody newborn baby, umbilical cord attached. The ads have been rejected by some publications, embraced by others. Essence, Child and YM magazines declined to run the angel/devil ad - Parenting, Seventeen, Elle and Cosmopolitan have accepted it.

The mixed reception reflects my own ambivalence. It's just two children, in friendly embrace. Then you notice the black child's oddly styled hair and solemn expression. Not until I read an article analyzing the ad did I "get" the angel/devil theme, and when I did, I didn't like it. I wondered whether my failure to consciously recognize the imagery - even when looking for it - was a sign that this ad was a cynical example of subliminal seduction, unlike the benign, multiracial kaleidoscope of children and teenagers in the familiar United Colors of Benetton campaign.

The creator of the angel/devil ad, Italian ad designer Oliviero Toscani, says portraying the stereotype undermines, rather than endorses it. His position may be intellectually genuine, but considering the tense racial dynamics of the United States, it's also naive.

Conchita Burpee-Williams, retail ad manager for the Inquirer and Daily News, placed ads from the Benneton United Colors campaign five years ago, and decorated her son's bedroom with posters of happy multiracial children from around the world. She thinks the angel/devil image is wrong for the American market, but still appreciates Benneton.

"Subliminally, the first time I saw it, I said, 'That's Benetton.' When I looked at it again, I saw Tar Baby. But I stopped the thinking process there

because I know Benneton," she says. "(The company) has been the pioneer in trying to bring Third World people into their ads."

As for the more jolting ads in its current campaign - like the newborn baby - Williams says if it makes you stop and look twice, it works. "The purpose was to get you to flip back and look at that ad - that is the subliminal seduction of advertising," she says. "It wasn't tasteful - but you talked about it and and you remember it."

Still, the angel/devil image, with its subtle and stereotypical subtheme, is troubling. With a newborn baby, the priest and nun kissing - we are shocked but we know why. Could it be that the two embracing children send a powerful negative message - even if, at a glance (which is all most ads every get), we think we've seen a portrait of "racial harmony"?

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