In some ways, I’m glad that marketers occasionally adopt a “do whatever it takes to sell the product that we’ve been hired to sell” approach. Because when they get it wrong, they bring to the surface various unspoken resentments and tensions in the cultural landscape. Take the following skin whitening ads by Philippine cosmetics company Belo:
When the inevitable backlash erupted, I thought to myself, “Finally! Filipinos can start having a public discussion about the largely unspoken understanding that the color/lightness of your skin determines how you will be perceived and valued in (Philippine) society.” (The recent controversy over Bayo’s ad campaign helped.)
The timing couldn’t have been better for one organization I support, the United Philippine Amerasians, who are actively engaging the public about the issues that their community faces:
To date, there are more than 50,000 known Fil-Amerasians in the Philippines, mostly only from the northern Philippine island of Luzon. There could be tens of thousands more in the entire archipelago. Virtually all of these Fil-Amerasians people from toddlers to seniors live in abject poverty because of social discrimination and the non-recognition and non-support of their military fathers. The Fil-Amerasian phenomenon is the result of the presence of the military bases in the past decades and the continued presence of US troops in the country by way of the Visiting Forces Agreement. Aside from the neglect, the presence of US troops also exacerbates prostitution with the host provinces virtually becoming the soldiers’ “sex playground.” The Filipino-Amerasian phenomenon has deep social, political, and cultural repercussions among this segment of the Filipino society that now requires proactive intervention in terms of change in public opinion and state policy. Tens of thousands of Amerasians are unable to participate freely in everyday life because of racist sentiments. Applying for work, going to school, making friends, are arduous engagements for them.
I don’t care much for the tepid, apolitical apology that Belo has issued. “If we feel that it’s a sensitive topic right now, we’re going to park [the ad campaign] a bit and see where it goes,” a Belo representative was quoted as saying.As apologies go, this one is a big fail. It’s like telling your friend, “I’m sorry I said you were unattractive. If you’re sensitive about it now, I’ll take a break and see how you do with that. I’ll probably get back to insulting you once you stop complaining.”
At any rate, thank you, marketers and advertising creatives, for helping spur discussions around racism. And thank you, Belo. No, really. Thank you.