Friday, July 3, 2009

LG and blackface

Someone call LG marketing, quick. I'm serious.

As The Grand Narrative alerts us, LG has some ads for it's Cyon "Black & White" phones that feature a White woman and a black man.


Please note how I did not capitalize black, as I customarily do, because I'm not referring to the race or ethnicity of the man: He is a White made up to look Black, possibly. Or at least black, definitely.

It is hardly surprising that this would raise eyebrows with someone like The Grand Narrative blogger, James Turbull. No big shock that it would even offend. Indeed, TGN's comments section is full of critical comments. Commenter islets writes:
its definitely something that would have been unacceptable here in US .
And this is where I come in. Are you sure about that? Do a Google image search for Rose Wurgel blackface and see what you come up with.

You might have encountered this picture of Rose, who was the daughter in a show called "Black. White." on Fox Television around the time I came to Hawaii. Making Whites look like Blacks and vice-versa featured crucially in this program, though the intentions were good.

And that brings us back to LG: What were their intentions? Were they trying to mock Blacks? Were they disgusted by the idea of making a Black person look attractive as the central figure in the ad? Maybe they were not trying to find a Black person but a person who looks blackish (just like that White woman is almost snowy pale).

At TGN, they are speculating on why a White person was made up to be Black/black, and I could do the same, but it's pointless unless you contact LG themselves and ask them what was up.

That's right, ask them. Don't put them on the defensive; just ask. And then, after their rationale, explain to them that they made a huge marketing faux-pas and that they should yank these ads posthaste.

Because even if no bad intentions were there, the fallout is far too great. Even if no malice was intended, the ad is extremely problematic.

But let's not kid ourselves. It is problematic primarily because of American problems with blackface in the past. Korea did not invent "Amos & Andy" and does not have — nor do many of the people in South Korea particularly understand — the cultural baggage associated with it. Blackface was a way to keep Blacks out of mainstream entertainment and, moreover, it was a way to mock and ridicule Blacks in a way that was used to justify the segregation, anti-miscegenation laws, and general discrimination faced by Blacks in the early and middle 20th century.



[UPDATE 3 (March 2012: This video seems to be down, so I'm going to link to the same thing on YouTube. Ironically, it is Bing Crosby and his band made up as Black folk singing about... wait for it... Abraham Lincoln! As a bonus, here is Judy Garland — she of Wizard of Oz fame — doing blackface in 1938.]

And to be fair, it can be very confusing for companies outside North America to recognize what's okay and what's not. Functionally, what is so different from this model made out to be Black from the Wayans Brothers, as Alex mentions, dressing up as White chicks in the movie White Chicks? [Or, for that matter, Robert Downey Jr's character in the parody Tropic Thunder, as Left Flank mentions below.]

And when the likes of Bing Crosby is dancing around in blackface in a classic and still beloved movie, how are Koreans (or Japanese, Taiwanese, etc.) supposed to pick up that it's bad. America changed the rules of its game and Korea didn't get the memo. (And many Americans didn't get the memo about yellowface either, for that matter.)

This is not the same thing as depicting Blacks or Africans as near-naked natives, so how would you explain to a Korean advertiser what the rules are? It all comes down to explaining that in America we don't do that anymore, and then explaining why. (And frankly, one or both of the models should have spoken up, if they were North American.)

Not being an American company, LG has not been a part of that at all. But if it's going to market to the masses, it has to recognize such cultural concerns, and now the ball is in their court. To not pull the ad now would be gross cultural insensitivity.

This, by the way, is what Rose Wurgel looks like without blackface:

Frankly, I like her better as a Black person (though she's cute enough in her "normal" look), but my preference may be because her hairstyle and look sort of reminds of my ex-girlfriend back at UCI.

UPDATE (September 13, 2009):
Someone commented on this Japan Probe post with a link to this here Monster Island post, citing it as an example that it's not only the Japanese who are guilty of employing blackface.

UPDATE 2 (June 26, 2010):
A post on the use of darkening makeup and race-bending on America's Next Top Model brings to mind some of these points all over again.

UPDATE 3.5 (March 5, 2012):
I've linked to this post several times as the issue of blackface (this time on MBC) has come to the fore again. You can read about it at Popular Gusts, Roboseyo, Eugene is Huge, Eat Your Kimchi, Expat Hell, and The Unlikely Expat

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16 comments:

  1. kushibo,

    Aren't you glad you didn't retire with all the wonderful fodder that just seems to be coming out of every nook and cranny?

    As for LG, they are very, very big in the U.S. (just walk into any Best Buy, Fry’s, or Wal-mart—it’s not only cell phones and microwave ovens that they make), and they should have at least one American on their payroll in South Korea who can proof read their marketing promotions to help prevent blunders like this from pissing off prospective buyers overseas. I know that I will stop buying any more Lucky Goldstar products for the foreseeable future.

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  2. John from Taejŏn wrote:
    Aren't you glad you didn't retire with all the wonderful fodder that just seems to be coming out of every nook and cranny?

    It's the same old same old. In a country of 50 million or 300 million there will never be an end to the stream of stupidity, offensiveness, outrage, bad behavior, etc., etc., by some citizens, politicians, whatever.

    None of this is new. The only thing new is that new people are treating it like it's OMYGOD THE WORST THING EVER as they think that each and every Korean is poring over all these stories and memorizing their content as they eat their corn flakes or ride the subway.

    I know that I will stop buying any more Lucky Goldstar products for the foreseeable future.

    And why is that?

    Why not write a letter and protest or make a call and ask why they did this? I don't suspect anything malicious, just ignorant of American cultural norms, but that's no good excuse. Do you suspect malice or racism, and if so how?

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  3. kushibo wrote, "I don't suspect anything malicious, just ignorant of American cultural norms, but that's no good excuse. Do you suspect malice or racism, and if so how?"

    No, I just suspect extreme stupidity, and I did shoot off an e-mail voicing my displeasure and my reasoning for going with Nokia and Emerson when I return back to the states.

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  4. You forgot to mention Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder.

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  5. how can they tell the models 'okay, you're going to be in blackface' and the models are like 'okay, blackface, got it' without any sort of reasoned objection on their part

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  6. why did they have to paint a white guy a dark chocolat hue when there are perfectly beautiful chocolate-colored male (and female!) models in the industry. Tyson Beckford, Maurice Townsell, Alain Vixamar (just stating...)! i am guessing the casting director of that particular ad campaign just settled for what he (it) could get.

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  7. Shinbone wrote:
    how can they tell the models 'okay, you're going to be in blackface' and the models are like 'okay, blackface, got it' without any sort of reasoned objection on their part

    If they were Russians, they might not have known at all. If they were Americans, they might have known (should have known), but might have thought that the money was more important than principle (a problem with a lot of 외국인 performers in Korean media).

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  8. Left Flank wrote:
    You forgot to mention Ben Stiller's Tropic Thunder.

    I shall add it.

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  9. reijene wrote:
    why did they have to paint a white guy a dark chocolat hue when there are perfectly beautiful chocolate-colored male (and female!) models in the industry. Tyson Beckford, Maurice Townsell, Alain Vixamar (just stating...)! i am guessing the casting director of that particular ad campaign just settled for what he (it) could get.

    I do think it's all about money. They were trying to go for an image, not a name.

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  10. BlackFace is an AMERICAN creation, it was/is a weapon used by whites to demonize black people and justify the second class citizenship of blacks.

    But that is (((America,))) MAYBE in other parts of the world like Korea, they do not know of the racism attached to BF, but as someone noted, the models should have pointed this out, but at least this silly ad won't be seen in America.

    Someone else mentioned White Chicks the film as a comparison, however, White face does NOT equal blackface, blackface has racist origins. whiteface does not.

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  11. I'm way too late on this one, but I don't believe Koreans are unaware of any racism towards people of African descent in any fashion. Koreans know exactly what is and isn't proper with respect to "race". They just don't care.

    I believe they purposely made a "caucazoid" wear black make-up to eliminate the African features. Having a model with "black skin" and "white features" satisfies the Korean idea of an attractive "black individual". Zero authenticity.

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  12. Zilchy, what would be the mechanism for KoKos actually being aware that stuff like this is "racist" toward Blacks? Like I and others have noted, the blackface-equals-racism is a largely American notion based on American historical instances. And when things like this are in the American mainstream (and shown on Korean TV), it muddies it further.

    In the face of such conflicting images from America, how is a KoKo supposed to be so certain of the inherent racism of blackface without having encountered discussions like this?

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  13. I think that they settled for what they could get. There are modeling agencies in Korea that specialize in foreign models like white or Japanese, etc., but I can't imagine that they would have an abundance of black models. There is not a big market for them in Korea.

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  14. Zilchy generally has a negative attitude towards Korea like many ESL bloggers, so take his views in that light. He's not trying to be objective, has no intention of doing so, so his comments are really nothing to be taken seriously.

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  15. The problem is not so much that the LG ad degrades black people. It doesn't. But that it objectifies race as some sort of fashion accessory. I don't think LG Korea should have to be mindful of sensitivities in other markets. Of course, as media players, they need to take responsibility for their content and make sure that it respects basic human decency. The ad is offensive on a HUMAN level, regardless of one's racial awareness. I find the outrage by some kvetchpats to be disingenuous as they would not expect American advertisers to be sensitive to foreign markets. LG KOREA has no responsibility to consider the market outside its borders, but it behooves them to do so from a pr perspective.

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  16. How is this a problem? The fact that it's a white man in black skin is exactly what DOESN'T make it racial. They treat the colours black and white as what they really are, colours, and not a skin. Why do you think the white woman literally has white skin? It's because it's WHITE WOMAN (literally) and a BLACK MAN (literally) NOT the races! Why do you think they are wearing black and white clothes? Seriously stop making everything about race and everything racist! And btw this mans face doesn't even remotely look like the "blackface" you are talking about!

    This ad would have been the same if they were selling red and blue phones, but too bad they happened to be selling black and white phones, because they are more fashionable and happen to be eachothers opposites. (Again, the colour, NOT the race, this has nothing to do with race, which is exactly why there are just PEOPLE in different colours, and not different races!)

    I believe this was an intentional move by their part, to feature a white man in black, and not an African man.

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