Talking Pandas, The Super Bowl, and the Unspoken Expletive RAC**M

Although I admit to not watching the Super Bowl this past Sunday, I can’t say I missed much, especially with the Pats losing and the alleged slew of racist commercials and over the top marketing techniques.

There were a few that took the cake however. If anyone had a chance to view the SalesGenie ads, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Take a look at these commercials that SalesGenie aired during the Super Bowl.

While there has generally been some backlash against SalesGenie for their slew of offensive commercials, nobody dares mark this as racism within popular culture. In fact, it seems that in most analyses the ads are only seen as “cultural insensitive” or “inappropriate.”

I’m sick of nobody calling these sort of media portrayals as they are, Racism! This NY Times article is a classic example of how some either selectively choose not to label these images racist, or perhaps are so far removed from the definition of racism and prejudice, that they are unable to look beyond what is merely “offensive” and what is racism at work in popular culture. G.S.

THE sponsor of two commercials during Super Bowl XLII for Salesgenie.com, which drew complaints from viewers because of the characters’ ethnic accents, says he is sorry and promises to stop running one of them.

Vinod Gupta, the chairman and chief executive of InfoUSA in Omaha, the parent of Salesgenie.com, said in a telephone interview Tuesday that a commercial featuring two animated pandas speaking with what were intended as Chinese accents would be withdrawn.

“We never thought anyone would be offended,” said Mr. Gupta, who developed and wrote both commercials himself.

“The pandas are Chinese,” he said. “They don’t speak German.”

Still, “if I offended anybody,” Mr. Gupta said, “believe me, I apologize.”

Mr. Gupta said he planned to keep running the other Salesgenie commercial, featuring an animated salesman named Ramesh who speaks with an Indian or other South Asian accent.

The reason, Mr. Gupta said, was that “more people seem upset about the pandas than Ramesh.”

“People have been making fun of my accent for years,” said Mr. Gupta, who described himself in the interview as half-Indian and half-Jewish. “And I love it.”

In the salesman spot, the sales leads that Ramesh finds on Salesgenie help him satisfy his demanding boss at Acme Widgets and win a sales contest. The spot appeared in the first quarter of the game on Sunday. In the pandas spot, the Salesgenie leads help the animals keep open their store, called Ling Ling’s Bamboo Furniture Shack. It appeared in the third quarter.

This was the second year in a row that Salesgenie advertised in the Super Bowl with animated spots written by Mr. Gupta rather than an outside agency. This time, an outside agency, Creative Mint in San Francisco, handled production for the animation.

The commercial for Salesgenie during the Super Bowl last year was poorly received, but in that instance the complaints were about what viewers perceived as low production values and a hard-sell style. The debate over this year’s commercials and the decision to withdraw the pandas spot are indicative of increasing consumer sensitivity to marketing messages, particularly when ethnic images are involved.

Super Bowl spots are perhaps subject to more Monday-morning quarterbacking than most, because the game typically draws the largest audience of any sponsored TV show. According to Nielsen ratings estimates, the Super Bowl this year was watched by an average of 97.5 million — the most ever to watch a Super Bowl and the second largest audience for any TV show, behind only the finale of “M*A*S*H” in 1983.

The huge viewership means that a broad cross-section of consumers is watching. Spots that may not raise hackles if they appear, say, in a late-night comedy show or an early-morning business news program on a cable network may prove problematic when they can be viewed by tens of millions, including children.

The decision by Salesgenie means that for the second consecutive year criticism will have caused the withdrawal of Super Bowl commercials.

After last year’s Super Bowl, two spots were taken off the air. The Masterfoods USA unit of Mars stopped running a commercial for Snickers candy after some viewers complained the spot and related material on a Web site were homophobic.

The second spot, for General Motors, was withdrawn because some viewers complained it glorified suicide. After editing, that commercial returned to TV.

The Salesgenie commercials were poorly regarded in many surveys, polls and reviews of this year’s 54 Super Bowl ads.

For instance, in the 20th USA Today Ad Meter survey, the pandas spot finished 44th and the salesman spot finished 49th.

In a survey of blog posts about Super Bowl spots by Collective Intellect, the Salesgenie commercials drew the most negative discussion.

“The comments, generally speaking, were that people thought the ads were offensive,” said Robin Seidner, marketing director at Collective Intellect in Boulder, Colo.

That opinion was also heard among the participants of a Super Bowl ad review panel sponsored by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. The two Salesgenie spots were among five that received the lowest grade.

“To finish at the bottom, you have to do something to push you down,” said Tim Calkins, a professor at the Kellogg School who led the panel.

With Salesgenie, “people thought they were offensive,” he added, “especially the pandas, for playing off stereotypes.”

Ethnic images have long been mainstays on Madison Avenue, but have lost favor under increasing scrutiny to see if they give offense, intentional or not.

Decades ago, two white actors who played black characters named Amos and Andy delivered commercials in what was meant to be black dialect for mainstream brands like Campbell’s soup, Pepsodent toothpaste and Rinso soap powder.

Black actresses were hired to portray Aunt Jemima in ads and appearances for that brand of products, making remarks like “Tempt yo’ appetite.”

Gertrude Berg, who portrayed the character Molly Goldberg, spoke with a New York Jewish lilt in ads for S.O.S soap pads. “Yoo hoo, Mrs. Bloom!,” she trilled. “Have you tried new S.O.S? With soap it’s loaded.”

Restraint on using ethnic images has increased the popularity of actors who appear to be white preppy types, who are cast as comic foils in campaigns for brands like Smirnoff Raw Tea and Budweiser beer.

Many Super Bowl advertisers test their potential commercials to ensure they strike the right chords and avoid the wrong ones.Anheuser-Busch, which usually buys more commercial time during the game than any other advertiser, spends months testing its prospective spots with consumers in focus groups.

“We do research extensively,” said Robert C. Lachky, executive vice president for global industry and creative development at Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis.

That is particularly true for commercials like spots for Bud Light beer featuring the Mexican-American comedian Carlos Mencia, which ran in the Super Bowl this year and last.

The spots, by LatinWorks, an agency in Austin, Tex., presented the comedian, who speaks with an accent, as an English teacher, tutoring classes of immigrants on skills like ordering a beer and meeting women.

“We particularly probed hard last year and this year with various ethnicities” to determine their reactions, Mr. Lachky said, and found they perceived the ads to be “light-hearted, fun and all-inclusive.”

One reason the consumers cited, Mr. Lachky said, was the use of Mr. Mencia “instead of contriving someone” to play a character.

“People know who Carlos is and his style of comedy,” Mr. Lachky said.

Not everyone, however, appreciated the Anheuser-Busch approach.

“What offended me was Bud Light,” Mr. Gupta said of the other Super Bowl spots on Sunday. “Very stereotyped.”

Mr. Gupta contrasted the “millions of dollars” Anheuser-Busch spent on its seven Super Bowl commercials with what he said was the cost of his spots, $50,000.

Despite the response to this year’s ads, Mr. Gupta said he wanted to return to the Super Bowl next year because the commercials had generated millions in revenue for Salesgenie.

“Maybe next year, no audio,” he added, “so I don’t offend anybody.”


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2 Comments on “Talking Pandas, The Super Bowl, and the Unspoken Expletive RAC**M

  1. Pingback: The Blogosphere and the Super Bowl « The Mustard Seed

  2. Thank you for this post. I also found the panda advertisement interesting in that the Genie Panda who gave the valuable advice spoke without an Asian or what the advertiser’s are calling a Chinese accent. Proving once again that White is Right. Further, White is Smart. and further, Chinese Panda’s are Stupid because they have an accent and pronounce their “r’ ” weird so let’s make sure and have the Daddy Chinese Panda suggest going to see the Grizzly Bear exhibit next.

    I agree with your call for naming racism, racism. There is a need to stop distancing ourselves from that which makes us uncomfortable which, in this case, is racism. junemoon

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