A friend and colleague, Al Mastromartino, has a favourite saying for his students (I also studied under him while at Fleming College):
Perception is more important than reality.
It’s always stuck with me, because that statement embodies something I’ve intuitively known for quite some time. Optics are critical in everything, whether professional or personal. Those who pay little heed to optics are bound to be punished for their lack of attention at some point in their life. As will those who do- but hopefully in a less damaging way.
Recently, Nivea got spanked by the public (and the media) over its ‘Re-Civilize Yourself’ campaign’. Personally, I don’t see an underlying racist intent- though I do understand how the advert could be interpreted as such. If you remove the African-American man from the layout, and insert a white man in his place, I doubt very much that anyone would consider the ad derogatory or racist (an interesting double-standard, no?).
The critical element here was the race of the subject- and giving the history of racial tension that dominated the cultural landscape of the last century in the United States (and still exists in a lesser form today), the reaction of the general public isn’t terribly surprising. Had the same ad run in Canada or Europe, I suspect the reaction to it would be underwhelming.
Interestingly enough, an African-American man was at the helm for the execution of this campaign (Cliff Carson is the VP at the agency which handles Nivea’s adverts). That pretty much eliminates any notion of racist intent from the campaign- though I suspect a few conversations about racial insensitivity were had during the aftermath. Might be a little more than awkward if it was a Caucasian giving Mr. Carson that lecture.
Sometimes, you just want to be a fly on the wall.