Exploiting Stereotypes: When Bad Is Not Good

By Steven Heller

December 13, 2005

Perhaps I am overly sensitive, even squeamish, when it comes to using racial and ethnic stereotypes in design projects. Yet it strikes me that the current Art Directors Club call for entries is toeing a thin line to make a humorous point. In a desire to tap into popular black culture to make ironic commentary about branding, the piece has slid into an offensive place. Even given the tenuous conceptual connection between the prestigious ADC gold medal, hip-hop’s extravagant bling, and the slogan “Ain’t No Such Thing As Too Much Gold” appearing under a shiny ADC cube, this piece is 14-karat tactlessness.

The “Pimp My Brand” bling necklace, a headline for the call for entries, is presumably a self-effacing jab at what designers do for a living. And there is nothing inherently objectionable about such inward-facing ridicule. In fact, it is possible that this is a critical poke at how white mass media exploit contemporary black stereotypes to sell products. And since “branding” has become such an overwrought mantra these days, it is even refreshing to see one of the leading professional associations joke about branding’s ubiquity and superfluity.

Yet, despite its potential power, it misses its mark.

If the call for entries is indeed a sly commentary on branding in general, the real perpetrators of mainstream commercial branding (ostensibly white-run corporations and advertising agencies) are not directly addressed. If irony is being used to critique how blacks are exploited, combining a hip-hop aesthetic with a send up of McDonald’s—a company famously known for targeting minorities and the poor through its advertising campaigns—paradoxically reinforces the stereotype. “From my perspective, it seems ridiculous,” says Maurice Woods, the author of Envisioning Blackness in American Graphic Design (a MA graduate thesis). “The associations of ”pimp my brand” and the black guy as Ronald MacDonald does not connect with me because I am distracted by the absurdity of the brother wearing that ridiculous suit! Ultimately, I feel most black people might feel the poster is ridiculous because we don't want to be seen this way. I know I don't.”

Strident satire must often be distasteful and offend. When effective, satire is a finely tuned art that hits a target with accuracy–and intelligence. But who is the target here? The depiction suggests something more dubious–and sinister–than mere comic commentary against the oligarchy of global branding. It plays to a stereotype of hip-hop as nasty, tastelessly extravagant and, ultimately, foolish. “This image is misplaced,” continues Woods, “ I would never associate this type of black man with anything pimped out. It doesn't fit. Therefore when discussing the ‘stereotypical’ image, this depiction, for me, places black men under the same group. We all are pimped out and gold wearing/lovin' guys.”

Context is everything. When cynically or arrogantly employed, a comic statement can easily be misconstrued. If this image were the cover of a hip-hop CD that critiqued rap language or gangsta style, then perhaps the message would be more palatable, or at least more understandable. After all, in the ‘70s, Blacksploitation films, featuring exaggerated anti-heroes such as Shaft, proffered new and curiously empowering stereotypes for blacks. Even parodies of this genre, like the movie “I’m Gonna Get You Sucka,” addressed the mixed messages in these films. In the late ‘80s, Public Enemy’s famous video “Burn Hollywood Burn,” was a ferocious attack on the legacy of racial stereotyping in ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s Hollywood when white producers routinely made legitimate black actors such as Steppin Fetchit play servile and powerless Negro clowns. Hip-hop has indeed created its own stereotypes that are fair game for parody and critique, but this call for entries is not the right venue.

There is also something denigrating about the language used. Under the panel of judges a notation reads, “Made up of the big dogs of the business,” and in the credits section the headline says “Shout Outs to;” these are decidedly hip-hop idioms that seem disingenuous here.

What is this piece saying? Is ADC suggesting that graphic and advertising styles are actually changing? Are they addressing the flux within pop culture generally and design specifically? Or is this merely gratuitous ridicule of a streetwise style that would rarely if ever get voted into an ADC competition? Nonetheless, Woods believes the piece raises questions that belong in the current design discourse because mainstream design and advertising “fail to give an accurate perception of the full spectrum of black life in America.” He adds, “Through mainstream media in particular, many corporations have defined black males as hardcore, Ebonics-talking, chain-wearing, athletic gangster thugs. I don't mind that to some degree. It is who we are as a people. It is what makes us different and intriguing to others. But it is not all. As black people, we are much more than this.”

Racy comedy has a place in design, but benign racism does not. Often designers find manipulating (and exploiting) recognizable cultural stereotypes is an effective lure for certain constituencies–and advertising is replete with caricatured types and sub-types, ridiculous, comic and heroic. Working them in, however, requires understanding of the line that, once crossed, moves a piece like the ADC call for entries into territory where motives become questionable. Humor and especially parody are the effective ways to comment, educate and alter public opinion. But designers should not have the license to use emotionally charged stereotypes unwisely–lest they backfire. The consequence, rather than tickling a funny bone or appealing to an audience’s sympathies, can instead alienate. “Pimp My Brand” may trigger some embarrassed chuckles, but one needn’t be overly squeamish to be offended by its mixed message. As one recipient of the call for entries told me, “This is just an incredibly bad idea!”