Sony, racism and zwarte piet

July 7, 2006

So Sony is in the news today. The charge: racism. An ad they have run in the Netherlands has prompted cries of outrage in the US for racism. See the ad and story here from the cnn money site. I’ll let you decide if you think the ad is racist or not.

My comment is about vulnerability around the issue of racism. The increased awareness of the public of the power of the media and messages in the media have prompted a much much higher level of concern about anything that may be considered racist. Completely innocent expressions can be seen as sinister and reflecting an unconscious level of racial insensitivity. One problem is that while most in your audience may not see an issue, only one or two who have special sensitivity or even hypersensitivity can make the claim. Calling out “racism” is like yelling “fire” in a crowded theater except the fire yell is illegal and claiming racism is seen as positive. It almost always means that accused party is guilty immediately–again, even if only one or two saw a problem.

I experienced this working with a client a while ago regarding the character of Zwarte Piet or Black Peter in a Christmas celebration. Black Peter is a central element of the Dutch Christmas celebration as he is Sinter Klaas’ helper. Traditionally Zwarte Piet has been presented as a child in full black face and that is still the way it is done in the Netherlands. But do it here, even in a strong Dutch community and you are certain to have a few voices cry out “racism.” The organization wisely chose to alter the custom, but there were those angry about the changes because they do not believe they were being insensitive to celebrate an old tradition in the traditional way. Those demanding change were the insensitive ones, they felt.

The point is, here is a good way to lose both ways. Obviously the best way is to find ways to avoid it even while that recognizes limits on freedom of expression. But if you get caught in the racism cries, there’s really only one alternative for companies like Sony. Pull the ads. Say you’re sorry that people understood it in a way they never intended. And create a new ad.


2 Responses to “Sony, racism and zwarte piet”

  1. Gabe Says:

    You have placed a valid point but you’ve probably never experienced racism in your day to day life. If you had you would probably know that your average American is going to find this add extremely offensive. Racism is every where and for now we have to be careful what we do and say.

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