Sunday, June 22, 2003

Colour My World

The April issue of National Post Business Magazine features a Microsoft ad for their Business Intelligence solutions. (I have no doubt this ad ran in many other magazines in North America). Three-quarters of the full page plea is a photo of a couple posing outside a Drive Up Wedding Chapel ("Wedding Window: A Special Memory.") The man and woman are meant to represent a complete mismatch, and the caption underneath the photo reads "Unfortunately, we can only help you make better business decisions." The main text of the ad points out that, "After all, even if you have data, without insights, what may seem like a good decision in the heat of the moment, can – in the morning light – turn out to be one you regret."

So what’s the problem, I hear you ask? Well, the woman is black, and her new husband is white. The assumption underpinning this advertisement, as far as I can tell, is that mixed-marriages are so common in North America that the last thing anyone looking at this advertisement is going to think is: "The marriage is a bad idea because the dude is black and the chick is white."

This ad seems to be informing us that we live in a society where racism has been eradicated, and that everyone has an equal opportunity in this glorious meritocracy we call North America. It’s a place where no one would ever dare make the obvious, crude, reductive observation that stiff, uptight honkies and brash black gals might not mix.

But if this marriage cannot be saved for reasons other than race, we are forced to examine the ad pretty damn carefully to discover why not. Donning my Roland Barthes x-ray specs, I notice the following signifiers:

* The drive-thru wedding connotes haste and impulse.

* The woman is wearing a huge pink disco wig and has a tongue piercing.

* The woman also has very colourful and eclectic clothing, whereas the guy has a white dress shirt and red tie and black pants and short hair. She is wild, he is buttoned down and tucked in.

* The woman appears younger than the man, but the age contrast isn’t particularly sharp.

If the woman were white, and everything else remained identical, it would not be immediately obvious why the wedding was so very wrong. The fright wig by itself, perhaps indicates that not all is right with the couple -- maybe she’s supposed to be a hooker and I’m overthinking the whole ad. But I want more than the fake pink hair, because the white guy, while definitely looking like "a suit" isn’t exactly the ultimate square. (He’d undoubtedly be considered one of the more hip customers at a TGI Friday’s). The woman, meanwhile has a thrift-store vibe to her ensemble, but isn’t so unlike the guy that we couldn’t imagine them getting married, assuming they were both Caucasian.

The cliches and stereotypes this kind of advertisement generally favours include the rich septuganarian marrying the 19-year-old Vegas showgirl or the nerdy accountant with pocket protector shacking up with the dreadlocked female bass player. Or really, any pairing that connotes a very sharp delineation between mindsets, outlooks, professions, worldviews, etc., semiotically speaking. What I can’t get over is how cavalier this advertisement is regarding race relations. We can joke about the hasty wedding, it suggests, because the bad old days are over – the present and the future are simply that fantastically egalitarian.

(And by the way, yes, if I had a scanner – which I promise to get one day soon – and the proper blogging software, I would have posted a jpeg of the advertisement).

Postscript: June 18, 2003 | SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- Abercrombie & Fitch, the clothing retailer that promotes a "casual classic American lifestyle," has been hit with an employment discrimination lawsuit accusing it of cultivating an overwhelmingly white sales force. Abercrombie has been accused of racial insensitivity in the past. Last spring, following complains from Asian American groups, it removed from stores a line of T-shirts that showed two slant-eyed men in conical hats and the slogan "Wong Brothers Laundry Service -- Two Wongs Can Make it White."