Monday, November 23, 2009

assume that nigeria is a threatening, hopeless morass of corruption

This is a guest post for swpd by Craig Brimm. The Creative Director and founder of Culture Advertising Design in Atlanta, Georgia, Craig's work over the past 15 years has included television, video, and radio advertising. Craig currently posts at Kiss My Black Ads, an advertising and marketing blog that focuses on the creative and cultural influence of African Americans and other cultural forces on global marketing.

I smell race baiting. This ad for an identity protection service is a perfect example of how racism today is subtly and not so subtly propagated.

Advertisements can play on your fears in the worst way to promote products. We see this behavior with products as varied as insurance to home monitoring systems and political campaigns. How are such ads all that different from the fear-mongering and racist Willy Horton commercials of George Bush/President #42's campaign?

This spot opens with an unsuspecting woman sitting on her lovely couch in her plush home thinking, no doubt: “I think I'll buy some sweat-shop shoes that were made in some lesser developed nation, where the prices are low and the children don't mind the hard labor. Because at the end of the week, that chattel slavery will amount to about 35 cents and that will keep shoe prices manageable the world over. Besides, those shoes are cute!”

I'm just joking here. But it’s not far from the truth of almost all American shoe-buying experiences. The visual short-hand of corporatized commercialism is a well-established language that all Americans both understand and speak fluently. This pre-programming is leveraged here to make the advertisement work.

The shoe-buying woman here is meant to evoke nothing but pleasant and calming thoughts. Alas, the sweet woman buying these shoes feels complicit in no crime. She couldn't be, nor would you ever consider her to be. As a conventionally pretty, white, upper-middle-class American woman snuggled up in her cozy home, she's a perfect, stereotyped picture: purity, cleanliness, wholesomeness, and safety.

Now, note the contrast of those shifty black Nigerians (as they are initially portrayed in this commercial). As vaguely African drums and wailing voices begin building gathering toward an inevitable crescendo, the slight but menacing grins and scowls of the black Lagosians suggest that they are unworthy of our trust -- or so this advertiser portends.

This spot relies completely on a belief system that dark-skinned Africans are evil, or at least, most likely up to no good. Not only is the ad grounded in a reliance on a global error of race, you are actually led, through camera work, make-up, lighting and set design, to feel that these people, combined with any other prejudices and misconceptions you may have, are just not to be trusted. By the time the commercial gets you to the elder gentleman's seemingly malevolent grimace, you've probably become convinced that the con is in. The “dark” men, and even one of their boys, have done just what you would imagine them to do.

Now, the producers of this mockery may feel that they turn the tables by the end of the spot, by showing you that it was all your imagination. "See," the ad finally implies, "they are good, legitimate business people. It was YOU who was imagining otherwise."

Nevertheless, by that point the damage has been done. Through the language of movie-making, stereotyping, and deceptive imagery, with the additional fuel of a few Nigerian-postmarked emails that you've probably received, the makers of this ad have succeeded in propagating racist tenets, and further cementing in your heart and mind that there is something wrong with these people.

Even if you go along with the spot and accept the premise that this was just an ad that shows, “I'm protected even when there is no real danger,” you have been given an impression, and more importantly an indelible emotion, that will stick with you. The ad reinforces, rather than counteracts, that initial creepiness you felt when you saw that the woman's credit card transaction went to a black man. Worse still, that it went to a black African... in Nigeria.

That is a horrible feeling -- a racist feeling.

In terms of racism, and of colonialist perceptions of a hopeless, ever-threatening "Africa," this ad really does the opposite of what it claims to do. It further tips the scales of an already unbalanced set of beliefs and systems of justice, away from truth and forward-facing progress.


  1. everything about this ad is racist. we're supposed to identify with the white woman (even the "we" in the readership who are not white). the ad also seems to place more value on her and her credit card numbers as she's innocently trying to acquire some cute shoes (and of course she's buying shoes online--why else would a woman use the internet??). there seems to be little value at all with regards to the black males depicted. then those same numbers are held precariously in child's hand as he rushes to the store where they're handed over to a big scary black man who sneers (the tone of this ad prior to us realizing our "error" caused me to read this as a sneer). so yeah, even though haha, there's nothing to worry about silly white woman, the images still evoked a specific racially based reaction...

  2. I am a Canadian living in Ghana. I cannot purchase ANYTHING on the Internet with my (legitimate) credit card. Why? The vast amount of fraud coming out of this region - namely Ghana and Nigeria.

    Are the credit card companies being racist or realistic?!

  3. Hm, white people/all people are told to be afraid of Scary Black People, except really, there is not a justifiable reason to be afraid...

    Hey, advertising *does* mirror reality.

  4. There is a perception and indeed a reality(transparency International corruption index) of corruption, organized crime,human trafficking etc in Bulgaria. But as we all know those things never happen in places where 'white' is the only group or the overwhelming majority; how would people know who the bad guys are?

    Nigeria does have a corruption problem. Fair enough that the advertiser wants to trade on that.

    It's disgusting, however when you can see that the actors are coached to frown and look menacing because he's received an email or being handed a scrap of paper (why would an exporter be angry their products are actually selling?)

    I could totally see this shot in some other part of the world (not scary dark Africa) where the hand to hand hustle was portrayed as hard working,boot straps and all that. Have things changes much since the days of that fictional Ad man Don Draper?

  5. I COMPLETELY agree with "The pale observer" because I am Liberian living in the United States and anytime I want to buy something from another African regardless of where they come from in Africa, I have to be super careful. It's true that as an African it is realistic and almost second nature to mistrust people because they are trying to get as much as they can out of you, even if it means scamming you. They do it because it's easy. Simple as that. People do it all over the world. You think it's bad in Africa? Go to Europe or Asia. It is just as bad, if not worse. The funny thing is, when they come to the US they are all trying to rip you off because it is painlessly easy.

  6. Mel and dilettante good points and comments made. I would like to see a similar commercial like this made about Bulgaria or any European country for that matter. Lets see the Ad's producers try to paint Europeans as cunning, scary and not to be trusted with online shopping purchases and identity info.

  7. Right, what a f'ed-up ad that is! Hypocritical, the way it claims to counter the racism it actually relies on, and yes, i think reinforces.

    thank you for pointing this out, great analysis that helps to spell out the problematic ways of so many ads' usage of stereotypes.

  8. It's definitely a racist ad, and I agreed with the analysis of it. From the white woman sitting innocently in her home to the scowls of the Nigerians, it's all extremely over the top. And as an East African woman myself, it feels like one step forward, two steps back.

  9. My friend lived in Nigeria and his email was hacked a number of times...I would get fake emails from him asking for money because of an emergency. Africa is not a continent without corruption..

    But ID hackers are all over the world...

    The ad men responsible for this ad should be tar and feathered...

  10. Pale Observer-

    I'm a Ghanaian in Ghana and I totally see your point. Advertisers should, in fact, make it a point to use racist imagery of blacks as being untrustworthy and criminal in order to advertise internet security. Internet fraud is unique to black Africans, no one of any other race ever participates in such a thing, and no one from any other geographic region does either. Therefore, you're right. They're being completely realistic.

  11. I hope you're being sarcastic, Doreen, because internet fraud is committed everywhere by people all over the world. I think Nigeria is in the public mind because of the ever-so-infamous Nigerian 419 email scam.

  12. Despite the extent of fraud, others still portray Africans as morons, and people without any logic or reasoning, simple beggars. Well, internet fraud requires a lot of tact to pay off - I am fed up of people making it seem like Africans are stupid and all we do is scam, and it's all a pot of luck.

    I didn't realise that this advert portrayed such racist undertones, I guess I've become numb to it, sad really.

    I completely agree, they could have made the 'sneering' black males to be laughing, this would then lead anybody who believes in stereotypes to think that they are happy because they have fixed a scam, only to lead to the fact that they are happy because they have made a sale.

    It's funny how the place was labelled Lagos- Nigeria too, I don't believe it was shot in Lagos, and why did not be realistic, most online businesses are not carried out from the slums of the city, most likely they would be from the prestigious VI in Lagos.. notice how only the stereotypical side is shown.

    Also, I am sure the advertisers feel that they are actually trying to make people realise that they are believing in prejudice, but this is obviously not true because they are advertising insurance. Why would the woman in the advert need it, if we Africans weren't trying to scam her after all.

    Fair enough Africa is corrupt, but so is EVERY other country in the world. It's just that Africa isn't as good as covering it up and monitoring it as other countries do.

    There is so much corruption in the world and if it makes people feel better to pretend it is segregated to one sector of the world, then let them have their house broken into and their identity taken.

    Now in the 21st century at least any American fraudsters can rest assure that they can scam and commit fraud without tarnishing their 'beloved' country's reputation.

    Sorry, I'm waffling..


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