Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Danger of Stereotypes - Rachel Ray

I was quite disheartened to read the article in the NY times on the stink raised by some about the scarf that Rachel Ray was wearing in her recent online Dunkin' Donuts advertisement. It completely illustrates the dangers of generalization and stereotyping. In case you missed the article, Ms. Ray was wearing a black and white scarf that in some way looks like the head scarves worn by some men throughout the Arab world, called Keffiahs.

Some people raised objections to the ad, suggesting that Ms. Ray's scarf was an endorsement of Palestinian organizations (deemed terrorists by the US and Israeli governments). They demanded that Dunkin' Donuts take off the ads. They were successful in painting her scarf as a symbol of terrorism and convinced the company to retract the ad. How very sad.

First off, the Keffiah is a garment worn by many Arabs in many nations, not just Palestinians who belong to particular violent groups. To paint everyone with the same brush and to declare that the Keffiah ALWAYS represents one negative viewpoint or opinion is ludicrous. That's like saying that everyone who wears a Christian cross supports actions like those of Timothy McVeigh (remember the Oklahoma City bombing) or people who blow up abortion clinics in the name of Jesus, the prince of peace.

Why did this work with Rachel's scarf? We live in a time where Muslims and Arabs are demonized and maligned. The generalizations, stereotyping and racial profiling are barreling forward unchecked in this time of Islamaphobia and the acceptability of fearing and disliking Arabs.

It frustrates and disappoints me that Dunkin' donuts would give in to the narrow mindedness of a vocal minority who seek to demonize and villianize Arabs and Muslims to perpetuate their own political and racist agendas. Shame on Dunkin' Donuts.

Ms. Ray was not wearing a Keffiah. Even if she had been, this ad shouldn't have been removed. Being an Arab is not illegal. Being a Muslim is not illegal. The Keffiah is an ancient tradition that has cultural significance that few would bother to understand. The fact that some people who behave in ways we might disagree with, does not negate it's positive cultural and ethnic significance for the vast majority of people who wear it.

If some one wears a wig to rob a bank, would wigs suddenly become a sign that someone is a criminal? How about gloves. Lots of criminals wear gloves, does that mean that everyone who wears a pair of gloves is a criminal? Think about it.

The Keffiah isn't common in our neck of the woods, so it's easy to believe it when someone says it means something. Who would know any different? That's what makes blindly accepting this kind of non-sense so dangerous. It spreads dishonest and destructive lies. It hurts people. It hurts us all. It hurts the world.

Link to the NY Times Article: NY Times Article on Rachel Ray's Scarf

Full text of article:
For Dunkin’, a Tempest in an Iced-Coffee Cup
May 30, 2008

IT was a peculiarly Internet-age controversy.

Dunkin’ Donuts canceled its iced-coffee ad with Rachael Ray, because of “the possibility of misperception” about her scarf.

On May 7, Dunkin’ Donuts began running an ad on its Web site and others, featuring the celebrity chef Rachael Ray holding a cup of the company’s iced coffee while wearing a black-and-white fringed scarf. In the ad, which was shot in a studio, she is shown standing in front of trees with pink blossoms and a building with a distinctive spire.

On May 23, the conservative blog Little Green Footballs posted an item that likened Ms. Ray’s scarf to the type typically worn by Muslim extremists. The blog said that the ads “casually promote the symbol of Palestinian terrorism and the intifada, the keffiyeh, via Rachael Ray.”

Later that day, the conservative blogger Michelle Malkin chimed in, likening the scarf to a keffiyeh and calling it “jihadi chic.” Then the story, as they say on the Internet, went totally viral.

Hundreds of people posted comments, many of them condemning Dunkin’ Donuts. Ms. Malkin continued to blog about what she referred to as the “keffiyeh kerfuffle.” People who claimed knowledge of Islam weighed in, objecting to the ignorance of equating a keffiyeh with terrorism.

On May 24, Dunkin’ Donuts removed the ad from its Web site and others — and was promptly condemned by people who accused the company of caving in to conservative bullies.

Dunkin’ Donuts turned down a request to talk about the episode, but issued a statement. “In a recent online ad, Rachael Ray is wearing a black-and-white silk scarf with a paisley design,” it said. “It was selected by a stylist for the advertising shoot. Absolutely no symbolism was intended.”

The decision to remove the ad, the company said, was made “because the possibility of misperception detracted from its original intention to promote our iced coffee.”

To be sure, the controversy probably got Dunkin’ Donuts a lot more attention than if that hapless stylist had chosen, say, a nice beaded necklace instead. And if there are lessons to be drawn from the incident, they probably relate to the warp speed at which innuendos pulsate through the Internet, as well as the nimbleness the medium gives companies to remove content that suddenly turns controversial.

“When it comes to issues like this,” said Eric Dezenhall, the head of the crisis public relations firm Dezenhall Resources, corporations “don’t want to be anywhere near them and they will cave very, very quickly — anything to stop the pain, anything to stop the press from calling.”

The fastest way to do that, he said, is “to pull the ad and do another one.”

In this case, however, removing the ad did not make the problem go away — far from it. Days later, on May 28, Ms. Malkin published a syndicated column praising Dunkin’ Donuts for removing the ad and reiterating the contention that Ms. Ray “posed for one of the company’s ads in what appeared to be a black-and-white keffiyeh.” She added, “The keffiyeh, for the clueless, is the traditional scarf of Arab men that has come to symbolize murderous Palestinian jihad.” It drew hundreds of comments on her blog and elsewhere.

From there, a backlash to the backlash started to take hold.

An item about the controversy had more than 2,300 votes and 830 comments on Digg, a news aggregation site. A YouTube video, “Rachael Ray Is a Terrorist,” poked fun at the situation, with the narrator saying, “Yes, because when I look at Rachael Ray I think 9/11.” That video drew more than 2,300 comments, and a related story on The Huffington Post had more than 1,200 comments.

“Often the counterstory can become bigger than the original story,” said Adam Selig, the chief executive of Visible Technologies, which helps companies handle their reputations online. “That’s something you have to be very careful about in social media.”

The removal of ads in response to objections is nothing new. Last year, several suicide-themed ads from General Motors, Washington Mutual and Volkswagen were removed after objections from suicide-prevention groups, and animal rights groups have campaigned against certain “Got Milk?” spots and others.

But for all the headache, has anyone’s opinion about the companies in question really been influenced?

“There are scandals that are worth responding to and there are scandals that are worth ignoring, and I think the Internet amplifies these voices,” said Eric Hirshberg, the president and chief creative officer of Deutsch L.A., which created the G.M. spot (which was returned to television after some revision). “But this is no different than the retired grandmother who used to write a handwritten letter because she was offended by a video game ad intended for 17-year-olds.”

Mr. Hirshberg said that the immediacy of the Internet made it seem like an immediate response was necessary, no matter how far-fetched the accusations. “The alternative is to assume that people will simply see through it, draw their own conclusions, and chuckle it off,” he said.

Studiocom, part of the WPP Group, is the agency that created the Rachael Ray ad, and it referred a call for comment to Dunkin’ Donuts. Hill Holliday, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies, is the agency that handles much of Dunkin’ Donuts’ traditional advertising, and it too declined to comment.

One Internet executive suggested the mudslinging could be a good thing. “You need to find and do something that is a bit edgy, that is polarizing, that provides some water-cooler conversation,” said Bob Parsons, chief executive of GoDaddy.com, the Web site registrar that likes to run racy Super Bowl ads. “One of the ways to know that your advertising is working is there will be a segment of the population that is upset by it

No comments: