What ad whiz came up with this nightmare?

Have I mentioned that I’m participating in the Riley Institute’s Diversity Leaders Initiative down in Charleston? No, I haven’t… Well, there’s a lot I can tell you about that — the banner ad at the top of this page is involved — but I’ll do that later.

Right now, I want to show you something we discussed as a sort of mini-case study Monday in the class.

See the above, short-lived, Intel print ad.

See if you can find, without Googling the controversy, how many ways the ad is racially offensive.

No, there’s no right answer, but I came up with three. With more time, I’d have come with more. I just thought I’d get y’all to talking about what I spent part of my day talking about.

The amazing thing was that it ever actually found its way into print. I don’t think any newspaper I’ve ever worked at would have fouled up to this extent, been this clueless — although I’ve been party to a number of mistakes. It astounds me that something that was not produced on a daily deadline was this ill-considered. But it was, and appeared in a Dell catalog in 2007 before being withdrawn. Intel apologized.

68 thoughts on “What ad whiz came up with this nightmare?

  1. Steven Davis

    People can look at a black dot on a white piece of paper and someone will find it offensive because the black color didn’t get as much coverage as the white color did.

  2. Doug Ross

    If you’re looking for racism, you can probably find it.

    So they took an image of a black sprinter in the blocks and multiplied it six times to show how fast the computer is.

    Let’s see – the fastest man in the world has been a black male for, what, the past 50 years? And we don’t want to acknowledge that because?

    Oh, I get it. Bowing down to the white massa… guess you gotta grow up as a racist or surrounded by them to get that out of the image.

  3. Doug Ross

    What is Diversity anyway? Being different, right? Or are we all equal in everything we do?

    We need less diversity and more commonality in things like character, ethics, responsibility. Our “diverse” leaders should be taking on the very real challenges that exist in their own communities.

  4. Steven Davis

    Doug – Diversity appears to be reason enough to get people to book expensive hotels in Charleston for the week. I bet the whole thing could have been done with a webinar and been equally effective.

  5. Steven Davis

    Kathryn – how many metrosexual computer guys do you know? They’re lucky to have found a guy who wasn’t wearing a t-shirt… he must be in management.

  6. Juan Caruso

    Brad, this may be the second time (in my limited experience with your blog) that you have seemed unusually alert to racial insensitivity where it may not even exist.

    I defy anyone to positively identify the races or ethnicities of the athletes depicted in the ad without their biographical data. Perhaps one is Asian and maybe two are latino. Why does such ambiguity matter to the apolitical?

    The six crouchers appear to be either male or transgender sprinters (a cursory assessment, no gender bias intended).

  7. Brad

    In our group of 40 or so people — here’s the roster — only one didn’t see it immediately as offensive. And that was a black woman. And once it was pointed out to her, she saw it, too.

    Where the differences in our group came was when we tried to imagine how it happened. Some imagined that the ad agency stupidly went looking for black runners (or the same dark-skinned runner, repeated six times), which would be worse than what I think happened — this was who showed up, and they said, “Yep, looks like a runner to me,” and proceeded without stopping to think.

    One (white) woman observed that, racial sensitivities aside, it was just a stupid ad — a lousy metaphor, badly portrayed, for communicating the message of the ad. I agree.

  8. Doug Ross

    So clarify for us – what is offensive? That a fit black male was shown as an example of speed? Would it have been okay if they had paid Usain Bolt or Carl Lewis a million dollars to get down in the blocks? if the manager was black, would it be ok or just half-racist?

    Seriously, there are too many people who spend way too much time looking for racism where it doesn’t exist. And it makes you wonder about people who can see it SOOOOO easily. So much self-loathing…

    It’s not a stupid ad in my view. The computer chip runs faster than previous chips.. i.e. multiplying the speed.

  9. Doug Ross

    I look forward to seeing what the action items are to address the problems with diversity in this state.

    I would assume every attendee would have some specific tasks to work on and show progress.

    Otherwise, we might think it’s a boondoggle.

  10. bud

    Seems like we’re living in a world that is far too hypersensitive. The ad just doesn’t seem particularly offensive to me. Sure, if you think about it enough I suppose it is but not sure I quite get it.

  11. Mark Stewart

    It’s certainly a dig at those who toil away their workdays in cubes. The ad creators probably work in that atmosphere; maybe that WAS the ads subversive point? And Intel missed it…and took the fall for being racist. Sometimes moments in life can be lose-lose proposition.

  12. Steven Davis

    It’s a dumb ad, because the way they’re lined up they’re going to take one step and crash into the guy directly across from them. The crash may subliminal, since it likely was on systems running Windows 98 or Vista.

  13. Mab

    If they are black, they aren’t very black. We don’t know they are “black” until the apology explicitly states it. They look more Asian to me, like Buddhist monks. But now that we know they are supposed to be “black” — with the allusion to speed…

    “Run, n*****, run” really is the subliminal message of the ad.

    What a whopping loser.

  14. Brad

    I’ll spell out the three ways it could offend, as I saw it, after a few more people have their say.

    It would be almost impossible for a newspaper editor with any experience to make a mistake like this. When you know that hundreds of thousands of people are going to critique your work — and look not only for things that offend them, but things that aren’t even THERE to offend them — you don’t eff up to this extent.

    Of course, frequently you go ahead when you know people are going to be offended, because the point you’re making is worth it (particularly when you are Robert Ariail’s editor). Where the experience and judgment comes in is in avoiding offending people when you didn’t intend to. That just distracts from your point, and eats up valuable time…

  15. Brad

    That last point is something a lot of people don’t understand. The challenge isn’t to avoid offending people; it’s to avoid doing so unintentionally.

    There was a spectacular case when that happened involving one of Robert’s cartoons, but I’ll have to save that story for a separate post another day, because it was complicated. I thought about bringing it up at the session yesterday, just to give the class an inside look at such a case, but I realized the setup would take at least five minutes, and I didn’t want to be the cause of our getting off-schedule.

  16. Steven Davis

    So this ad is offensive, but we get to watch Smiling Bob in Cialis commercials every 5 minutes on television.

    Bob is smiling because he always has someplace to hang his coat.

  17. Doug Ross

    I’m wondering how the 40 people were asked to determine if the ad was racist? Was it done with a show of hands? If so, I would question the group dynamics coming into play where people see someone else raising his hand to say its racist and not wanting to be perceived as racist, others raise their hands.

    Meanwhile here on your blog, nobody sees it. Can you find anyone who will specifically state the implied racist?

  18. Doug Ross


    You fell into the same trap. If you don’t see the racism until someone explains it to you, how can it be there?

  19. bud

    I thought Robert’s cartoon making fun of a crippled race horse was extremely and unnecessarily offensive. That was the only time I was really put off by Robert Ariail. Don’t remember the exact details but I think it involved Hillary Clinton somehow. Whatever point Robert was trying to make was completely lost by the offensive nature of the cartoon.

  20. Karen McLeod

    So this Intel ad is trying to tell us that its product crashes at lightning speed? Or are these folks swimmers, about to dive into a dry pool? I’m not sure about the racism, but I am sure about the stupidity of the ad.

  21. Brad

    OK, one quick one, that is less involved…

    There was the time that Muslims were up in arms over one of Robert’s cartoons — one that in no way was intended to offend them.

    That reaction got Robert and me riffing about doing a cartoon with a mob of women in burkas chasing him with pitchforks and torches. And then we started thinking about all the other people who could be chasing him at the same time.

    The result of that conversation was the cover of Robert’s last book. In fact, it was in talking about the cover that we decided he’d do the book…

  22. Mab

    Doug — I didn’t see outright racism until the company called themselves racists because I thought they were Asians and Asians typically don’t get hung up on race. I first saw “religionism” with the shaved heads and bowing and then got distracted by the symmetry and arrangement of the playahs.

  23. `Kathryn Fenner

    “It would be almost impossible for a newspaper editor with any experience to make a mistake like this. When you know that hundreds of thousands of people are going to critique your work — and look not only for things that offend them, but things that aren’t even THERE to offend them — you don’t eff up to this extent.”

    Last week’s The State front page had a small box halfway down–headline on the left “It might not be just baby fat” Photo on left: E.W. Cromartie, pre-prison weight loss days.

    Of course, The State has severely cut its copy-editing staff. My brother gave a presentation at a copy editors’ conference, and his point was that good copy editors think like 12 year old boys. His example was a photo of a sign for Columbia’s iF art gallery –written like that–for those who didn;t get it, he elucidated: There’s an iPad and iTunes….

  24. `Kathryn Fenner

    @Steven– I know many computer scientists, and the white ones mostly do tend to dress badly–a stereotype with a basis.

    You all do realize that a white man in the master pose over apparently half-naked black men, bowing down, echoes back to our unfortunate past? It wouldn’t be the same if they were sumo wrestlers!

  25. Burl Burlingame

    I didn’t “get” the ad until I blew it up and saw the ethnic split.

    And yes, newspaper editors are supposed to imagine the world is made of 12-year-old boys and 82-year-old mothers. Because we elect the former and hear from the latter.

  26. Mark Stewart

    Here is one where WE in the south clearly see the racist imagery; but I doubt that the young creative and account management types saw the problem the ad presents. They probably thought it was cool that the single runner was reproduced five times to scale (with half in reverse).

    If you tell me the ad agency is in ATL then I would quickly retract that. This bothers me as a consumer viewing it but not as an ad product – if that makes any sense.

  27. Karen McLeod

    @ Doug, Sorry, but while the racers/swimmers’ skin looks darker than the dork’s in the rumpled shirt’s, the way the picture is lighted leaves room for confusion. Are you sure that they aren’t Polynesian?

  28. SusanG

    I think it’s really only racist if it was done on purpose — so, for instance, if a white supremacist group posted this on their website, we could guess that they saw it as funny because of the black men looking like their bowing to the white guy, and so was probably there with racist intent. But with it being Intel, we can presume there was no racial subtext. (It made me think, “those runners are going to totally destroy that wimpy guy in the middle when the starter’s gun goes off”). So I’d vote no, not racist. Or at least, not in any sense of the word that includes malevolent intent.
    (And I think it’s silly examples like this one that make people get a wrong idea of what racism is and how it actually causes harm).

  29. SusanG

    Oh, and I feel like if this is what you’re discussing at a Diversity Leaders meeting, that’s not good. It trivializes the real issues in a way that is not healthy. Reminds me of some of those silly corporate HR diversity classes they used to have.
    So I hope this was just some sort of ice-breaker, and the discussions got more substantive!

  30. Mab

    Karen —

    Are you sure they are swimmers? Swimmers usually grab their toes in the start position.

    Also, Wikipedia says that “Males generally swim barechested.”

  31. Doug Ross

    Now if you want to REALLY get into the issue of race, how about starting a topic on the front page story from The State today:


    The fact that Richland 2 school district is a majority minority school district is causing a lot of angst with the new high school opening up. Richland Northeast parents apparently don’t want RNE lines to be drawn that make it 84% minority. Apparently that is a recipe for failure according to the minority parents fighting against the proposed lines. Interesting.

  32. Steven Davis

    So are track meets racist? There are typically several black men kneeling down with a white guy holding a pistol over their head. People make things appear the way they want them appear.

  33. Steven Davis

    Kathryn – How do the Black and Hispanic computer scientists dress? Or is it just the white ones that dress badly?

    Until you wrote this I never knew there was a “master pose”. I see a guy standing and crossing his arms, is this now a racists sign?

  34. Brad

    SusanG — We do a lot of things in the class, some of it dealing with case studies, which I am loathe to cite because they are copyrighted.

    It’s oriented toward discussing dealing with diversity within organizations, since many of these folks are executives from the public and private sectors. “How would you handle this sort of situation?” sort of thing.

  35. Doug Ross

    So lets look at the responses so far:

    Is it racist?

    Doug – no
    Steven – no
    bud – no
    Mark – no
    Susan – no
    burl – yes
    karen – no
    mab – maybe

    I really am interested as to how the room was polled on this ad. Was it a show of hands?

  36. Doug Ross

    I saw a commercial on TV last night for one of Tyler Perry’s sitcoms. In the commercial, a black woman said to a black male something to the effect of “You are a lot closer to looking like an ape”.

    I guess that’s okay.

  37. Brad

    There was no “poll.” It was a discussion. We were shown the ad, and asked what we thought. And here are the things that jumped out at me, immediately (aside from the fact that it was an ineffective ad):

    1. Bunch of black guys, bowing down in apparent worship, or at least abject subservience, before a white guy.

    2. The black guys are dehumanized, in multiple ways. They look like carbon copies (like the products of Bokanovsky’s process in Brave New World). Their faces are unseen, their heads shaved, giving them no discernible characteristics beyond their athletic forms. Which of course was the only thing society valued about black men in the time of slavery.

    3. The white guy is a generic figure, Everyman — nothing remarkable about him beyond his apparent smugness — while the black guys are the thing you are being urged to buy. Together with point 1, the clear message seems to be that the white guy is the human user, while the black guys are the raw power of the machine, the tool, the implement to be wielded.

    Finally, once again, the focus of any such discussion with this groups is the institutional problem: How did Intel get into such a mess? How might it be avoided. Of course, the standard answer was discussed — the right people didn’t see it, or were not listened to.

    But the answer isn’t that simple. It’s not “You need black people in the room.” After all, the only person in the room who spoke up to say that she didn’t see the problem was a black woman.

    One more point about this ad — what really made it fail was that the intended message was so fuzzy and oblique. “So you’re saying that if I buy your product, it’s various parts will jump up and crash powerfully into each other?” It’s just odd imagery. This causes the brain to immediately look for other explanations.

    You can always defend a good piece, that makes a point well, no matter whom it offends. Just as I can defend that cartoon that offended Bud (and Bud, nobody was making fun of the horse; the cartoon made fun of Hillary, using the horse as a graphic representation of a cliche that is familiar to everyone).

    I can’t imagine that anyone in the organization spent much time defending this one. It had so little to recommend it.

  38. Brad

    For a person to be racist, there must be intent. But people who are not racist can inadvertently produce something that sends racist messages. We could argue all day whether this is indicative of subliminal racism, or unconscious wishes. I would say not.

    That doesn’t keep it from being boneheaded.

    This is something that a lot of people struggle to understand. They want to leap to defend someone who unintentionally did something offensive. But in communications, professionalism means being aware and proactive enough that you don’t blunder into mistakes that obscure what you are trying to communicate. So yeah, they’re to blame. But no, they’re not racist.

  39. `Kathryn Fenner

    but the message seems to send racist messages. Okay.

    @ Steven–anyone who studies theater or dance or other similar performing art, as well as basic body language skills, dog training, etc., learns that there are dominant postures and submissive postures. The guy standing is standing in a “master”/dominant/bossman posture and the crouching men are in a submissive posture.

    but you knew that….

  40. Mark Stewart

    We all agree that the ad was boneheaded. That’s why I would call it a junior effort. I mean, we are commenting on an ad that appeared in a catalogue!

  41. Juan Caruso

    @ Doug Ross

    “Responses so far:”

    Although your list omits my opinion (not racist), I certainly do not claim any intentional bias on your part nor take any offense.

    You are welcome!
    -Juan C.

  42. Doug Ross

    And those links are only meant as a point of reference. “We could argue all day whether this is indicative of subliminal racism, or unconscious wishes.”

  43. bud

    Sorry Brad but the horse cartoon was horrific, offensive, disgusting and whatever message it was trying to make was utterly lost on me and apparently others because I remember many who found it offensive. I’m afraid you and Robert dropped the ball on that particular day. Boneheaded fits that particular cartoon to a tee.

  44. Steven Davis

    1. That’s a worship pose?

    2. Have you ever watched a professional track meet? You’re not going to see a bunch of fat white guys in dreadlocks in the starting blocks.

    3. Huh??? You have to be digging deep to come up with that.

    @Kathryn – See #3.

  45. Steven Davis

    @Kathryn – I saw a dorky white guy standing in the way of six track sprinters.

    It’s people who think like you and Brad who got classic Looney Tunes cartoons banned from television. They can’t show pigmies or Bugs Bunny dressed up like Hitler… but Bugs Bunny cross-dressing appears to be okay.

  46. kc

    Mr. W, to your list at 12:56, I’d elaborate that the white guy is obviously the brains and the boss, and the kneeling black guys are the brute labor.

    The creator of the ad surely didn’t intend to offend, but like you, I’m amazed it ever got to print. You’d think at some point in the process someone would have said, “Um . . .”

  47. Steven Davis

    kc – That’s what I usually do when I don’t know the answer. What do you do? I mean besides answer my question.

  48. Doug Ross

    Here’s a great diversity issue that would be better to discuss than ads for computer chips:

    “The federal government released its latest figures on births (“Preliminary Data for 2010”) yesterday. The illegitimacy numbers by race and ethnicity are essentially the same as last year’s. More than 7 out of 10 African Americans (72.5 percent) are born out of wedlock, along with more than 6 out of 10 American Indians and Alaska Natives (65.6 percent), and more than 5 out of 10 Hispanics (53.3 percent) — versus fewer than 3 out of 10 whites (29.0 percent) and fewer than 2 out of 10 Asians and Pacific Islanders (17.0 percent). “


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