I saw an intriguing ad on TV a bit earlier. It featured hamsters dressed as ‘gangstas’ driving around in cars and doing weird dances to rap music. It was so striking (was this a dream?) I made mental note of the company for which the ad was for (Kia). This is already noteworthy as most of the time my reaction to a TV ad (if I notice it at all) not knowing what it was an ad for. So on a certain name-recognition level, the ad had already succeeded on me. Here is the ad:
It also struck me that this ad was racist. I was instantly confident that if I googled ‘hamster kia racist’ I would get plenty of hits. Notice that in the age of google, we have this method of testing our ideas/reactions to things. This strikes me as good for mass mental health or at least self-knowledge. Are my ideas original? Are they common? Am I just insane? Just google the right phrase and see if you get hits. In this particular case, I was pretty sure I wasn’t insane, and that my reaction to this ad would be far from original; and I got confirmation of all this when I googled – NOT insane. Phew. Another bullet dodged. In times past I guess people would be left to wonder whether it was just them and they were insane. Night after night. At best they could try to ask their friend at work the next day over the water cooler. And that would only be minor confirmation at best. Maybe the friend was insane….
Anyway, here is one hit that came up which is on some Kia astroturf site. It has a bunch of commenters (many of whom pretty much have to be Kia employees in drag – who else would comment on that site?) praising how cool they think the ad is. They really like it! It’s so clever! But then along comes spoil-sport commenter black carl:
My GOD this is racist crap. You know very well the Rats are black people. All you KKK members think this is funny dont you? Black people breed like rats and have small minds like rats they shuck and jive around and ride Soul cars. As long as you give us black rats some speakers and name the car Soul we will buy it. What a load of crap. You KKK members must have lots of fun laughing at this commercial calling black people rats. My children are crying after seeing this. They said daddy how could kia make fun of black people like this and get away with it.
Note, I’m not one who usually cries ‘racist’ at everything, and I don’t subscribe to political correctness in any way shape or form, but I do agree with black carl, on everything except two minor points: (1) the part about his children crying, which I don’t believe for one second, but which is by now almost a de rigeur maneuver in internet complaining about stereotyping, so at least he’s keeping faith with the tropes of the genre, and (2) the part about him being black (I place it a 35% probability that it’s actually a white guy trying to add extra power-points to his righteous outrage by internet-posing as black).
Anyway, black or not, carl is correct: this ad is totally racist: it is characterizing black stereotypes as animal-like in nature. ‘See these animals. They are behaving like blacks. See how natural we can make these animals look when we make them behave like blacks. You look at these animals and think of blacks, don’t you?’ I don’t really know how else to describe this ad. Unless they want to hide behind ‘hey they’re not behaving like blacks. That’s you who applied those stereotypes. They could be any race…’
It also (as with most modern advertising) seems completely spurious, out of the clear blue sky, thought up by a drug-addled lunatic. Forget about any problems one may have with connecting black stereotypes to small rodents just for a sec. What on earth do hamsters have to do with driving a Kia in the first place. Why hamsters? And what on earth do black stereotypes or rap music have to do with driving a Kia either. Not that I would know necessarily, but the whole thing seems a little too overspecific. Don’t they want to sell cars to anyone else? It’s all so random. So the mind attempts to make sense of this gobbledygook and is led in short order to conclusion #1: this ad is trying to sell Kias to black people, by making it look like a cool thing for black people to buy, indeed by trying to create the impression that black people already think it’s cool to have Kias, on the view that if it becomes cool amongst black people that will spread to young hip white people.
But then, this conclusion then proceeds to come to a screeching halt when it smashes head-on into conclusion #2: Kia thought a good way to do this was to (instead of just using actual black people) dress up a bunch of hamsters as stereotypical black people. Which black people is that supposed to appeal to exactly?
So let’s revise our conclusion to #1a: Kia isn’t trying to sell to black people at all. They are trying to sell to white people who want to think they are as cool as black people but don’t actually like actual black people. In other words, they’re trying to sell to SWPL type white people (a group which is not only white people, it includes many Asians etc).
That makes much more sense actually. And after more timewasting internet digging 10 minutes ago, I figured out that this commercial is actually the continuation of a prior commercial where it was more clear how the ‘hamster’ analogy came about and what it was supposed to mean (namely, in what I guess was a ‘previous’ commercial, non-Kia drivers were depicted as hamsters on wheels running in place, whereas the hamsters in the Kia were grooving out to rap music on their radio). Well now. Now it all slides into place. This sales pitch was always just about coolness, nothing more. No wonder the commercial was afraid to show actual black people. That would just turn off SWPL whites. But showing dancing hip-hop hamsters in an abstractly ‘clever’ way, being like blacks, well that sort of seems like the sort of thing that someone might be able to plant the idea in some online forum somewhere of it being cool. This baseless impression might then catch on among SWPL’s until the self-fulfilling prophecy completes the cycle and now you suddenly (the hope is) have large numbers of consumers who actually do think, if only subconsciously, that hip blacks like Kias, without any of them ever having seen any visual evidence of any black person in or even near any Kia whatsoever (which would have just turned them off). A tricky tightrope to walk, but they’re trying.
At least, I think that’s the strategy behind this and similar forms of modern advertising. And it might not be wrong, either!
I don’t even know what else to say about this ad. I’m kinda speechless at this point. Apparently someone is trying to sue Kia, for what I don’t know exactly, but I hope it doesn’t succeed. I don’t think you can or should get sued for making racist commercials (I think you should be made fun of and run out of business). But what do I know. The rules have changed. Obamacare, etc.
When I was a kid I read a creepy, unsettling book called Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater. I don’t remember much of it (although I did read most of it later in a bookstore, and found it even more creepy if anything) except that it was a kid who would turn on the TV late at night and see lizards playing spacey jazz music, but no one else would believe him. That may not be how it actually was, but that’s what I remember. Part of the horror of it for me was the lack of context or explanation for it all. Who were the lizards? Were they aliens? Why didn’t any of the normal grownups acknowledge their existence and weirdness? Did they know of it but were hiding it?
I don’t know if the Lizard Music was meant to be a metaphor for something, some secret adult knowledge that an 8-year-old would find baffling but intriguing for reasons he did not understand (sex? drugs?), or something worse like an unspeakable adult crime (molestation? warfare?). It may have been – probably was – but I couldn’t figure it out. Which made it all the more unsettling.
Whatever the case, it strikes me that this commercial is essentially indistinguishable from the original Lizard Music concept. We have now reached the age of actual Lizard Music. An 8-year-old somewhere will turn on the TV late at night and see these hamsters rapping a Black Sheep song. No context, no rational explanation can be made, no adults acting like anything’s wrong. And in this case maybe it’s even worse because the whole thing is overlaid with a whole bunch of exhausting, noisy, headache-inducing pop culture – rap, city streets, mass-produced cars, the ‘previous hamster commercial’ we are all assumed to have seen but didn’t – that it takes a true savant to explain and sort it all out. The commercial is like an assault on our rational processes: we either have to learn a whole bunch of stupid pop culture stuff to try to make sense of it, or we just let it assault our senses and take the damage. Or, perhaps we go insane.
With the Lizard Music, it was creepy, and contextless, but at the end of the day it was just Lizards, playing music. In retrospect, there was a certain innocence to that.