Tag Archives: commercials

Old Navy: Blatant Racism and Deniability in One Commercial

Laurie and Debbie say:

Old Navy has launched a series of commercials and advertising featuring department-store mannequins (which they call “supermodelquins”) as the main characters. In keeping with the standards of our times, most of the supermodelquins are white, and a few appear to be African-American. In an astonishingly offensive move, one of the commercials features a black woman whose clothes are suddenly and unexpectedly ripped off, and replaced by black “modesty bars.”

Watch at your own risk.

Harry Allen wrote about this in Media Assassin, and he said so much of what needs to be said, especially well. Read his whole piece, especially the introduction about James Baldwin, Obama, and the myth of post-racial America. Here are some of his pithy comments on the commercial itself:

I wasn’t waiting around to, figuratively, see a Black female’s clothes ripped away in front of her husband and children, above, as her mate futilely tries to rescue some of her dignity and shield her nude body from the gaze of the only white man there, right. (”Sweets!” he exclaims.)

Of course, except for the fluorescent store lights and cheap, made-in-Mexico clothing, the preceding paragraph sounds like any number of racial confrontations with white men that Black males inevitably lost. In a nation where the Black female was widely portrayed as hot, lustful, and aggressive, and her body endlessly and transgressively sexualized, the Black mannequin’s sassy, smiling retort to her own violation—”Oh, what: Like you never seen plastic before!”—affirms, symbolically, that, you know: They like it.

Many Black people will be frustrated by the responses that white people often have, both to articles like this one, and to perceptions of racism in, what to white people, are these silly, little, seemingly insignificant corners of life. (”You people see racism/em> everywhere!”, Caucasians quickly claim.) But Black people should expect this, because without some sort of strong disruption, many white people will not see racism.

He goes on to explain quite clearly why this is true, including the memorable comment:

I think many Black people believe that white people who practice racism will stop doing so if they get to know more Black people, learn more Black history, and have a few home-cooked meals with us. I don’t really agree, but I do believe, as a mentor whose ideas I respect has often said, “Anything people do, people can stop doing.”

One of the insidiously nasty aspects of the claim that Obama’s election makes America post-racial is that it reinforces the already-strong false justification, “Oh, it wasn’t about race!” or “Oh, we just made that mannequin black by accident. It could have been any of the other commercials!” Sure, it could. We haven’t seen all the other commercials, but we bet that none of them would evoke the near-naked woman for sale on the slave block the way this one does. And the horrifying thing is that the people who wrote, and approved, and filmed the commercial probably don’t even realize how racism is coloring their choices. It just “looked all right” to them. “See, we’re including Black people! We’re not racists!”

(They’re probably going to say the same thing about the [white] mannequin legs sticking up out of the trash. “We’re not sexists! That’s just what happens to old mannequins. We’re just telling the truth.”)

We believe, with Harry Allen and his mentor, that anything people do, people can stop doing. We also believe that what people do, people won’t stop doing without pressure. Old Navy is a division of the Gap, and can be reached at

Two Folsom Street
San Francisco, CA 94105
(650) 952-4400

Debbie found this on the Facebook group Whites Overcoming Racism through Knowledge.

How to Recognize an Advertising Lie

Lynne Murray says:

Make someone happy . . . isolated, anxious, desperate.

It’s a car commercial so of course it’s Auto-erotic, but it caught my attention because of the sound track. The camera tracks a luxury automobile (power, sex) traveling a serpentine road (control, dominance). There’s never any traffic on the road in a car commercial, it’s a driver’s wet dream of flying at will to any destination with no obstacles. The only sound is Jimmy Durante singing Comden and Green’s “Make Someone Happy.” Durante’s heartfelt, jazz-rough voice performing that song resurfaced in the public eye a few years back when it played over the end credits of Sleepless in Seattle.

(Here’s a somewhat unexpected video for Durante’s version of “Make Someone Happy”.)

I like the song and have heard it often enough that it echoed in my mind for a few days, filling in the lyrics that the commercial didn’t use, “Make just one someone happy, then you will be happy too.” When I saw the commercial again on TV, I paid closer attention and realized that they had snipped the lines about “Someone to love is the answer.” In the commercial the man driving the car (target audience) smiles as Durante, a wise old man figure, sings, “you can be happy too.” The commercial suggests that the man has made himself happy by purchasing the car. No other humans necessary. That’s serious auto-eroticism, and pretty much the opposite of the message of the song.

I have no problem with the car as a stand-in or catalyst for human contact (power, sex and control). I totally get the special relationship one can have with a car, having spent my teen years in Southern California, lost my virginity in the front seat of a car parked above Silver Lake in L.A. (not the back seat–long story omitted involving his mother’s car with bench rather than bucket seats, Freudian overtones, etc.)

I was even charmed a few years ago by a commercial where Etta James delectably sang “At last, my love has come along” (you can listen to it here) while a camera caressed the lines of a luxury sedan. Aside from romance in the days when private space was an unthinkable luxury, I’ve done self-help primal scream therapy in cars. Sometimes a car is the only place you can be alone in this culture.

But slicing up a lyric about reaching out to others so as to turn it into a prescription for self-indulgent isolation made me think about how often we are sold something that is the opposite of what we really yearn for–and how often cynical marketers use our desires and hot buttons to separate us from our money, our votes, and one another.

How can you tell what you’re buying when all you can see is the mirage of what you want? A friend having trouble getting a job after losing one told me her state has a “right to work” law. I’d never heard of that and she explained that in practice that meant that an employer could fire any employee on the spot with no explanation or excuse. Another friend who’s a paralegal confirmed that this was an anti-union law very common in Southern states.

I was shocked, “Right to work? Why don’t they call it “right to fire you for no reason”?” Oh, wait I get it, that’s how they could get working people to vote against their own self-interest.

So I started to wonder how can we decode the message when the highest-priced headshrinkers and advertisers are aiming at our groins, our hearts, and our guts. How can we tell if what we are buying or voting for will make us isolated, unemployed, broke, and altogether worse off?

It’s hard to think when a hired mercenary manipulator is lathering you up for the old brainwash and fluff dry. Here are three warning signs that you are being manipulated and should back off before you go deeper into the quicksand:

1. Does it empower you? Or are you signing yourself into something that gives away control to someone else? Sometimes this is necessary, for example, in apprenticeship or other learning situations but it never hurts to consider what you’re paying (in money or time), what you’re getting in return, and whether it’s really what you want. A moneyback guarantee in writing wouldn’t hurt.

2. Does it isolate you? Does doing or buying this cut you off from other people or from whatever things, situations, etc. keep you protected and grounded?

3. Does it violate common sense? Does it try to substitute some kind of “new, improved, secret” magical ingredient that may or may not exist, and which is supposed to make it work better than all the other versions of the same thing you may have tried that didn’t work. In other words, does it suggest impossible results? To expand on the old saying, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is, and you may be paying someone money to lie to you.” (I’m not totally opposed to paying for lies among consenting adults–after all I write fiction, which amounts to the same thing.)

Dieting to obtain health and social acceptance is an example of #3, and one I consider harmful. The desire to make one’s body acceptable in a world where most body types are considered “wrong/sick/ugly/life-threateningly dangerous” is so intense that women in particular can dive into a hypnotic buying trance, spend mightily and work insanely because the prospect of accepting our bodies as they are is so unthinkable.