Friday, 8 January 2010

'Racist' KFC ad: The perils of globalisation

An internet uproar has exploded over the past few days over a purportedly racist KFC ad airing in Australia. The controversy grew so loud that KFC today decided to pull the ad - not because it was causing any offense in Australia, but because Americans watching it on YouTube were offended.

You couldn't pick a more perfect illustration of this crazy globalized internet age we live in. The ad was aired by KFC Australia as part of its "cricket survival guide" series in the run-up to a big match between the Australian and West Indian cricket teams. The ad features a white Australian sitting in a crowd of unruly black Carribean cricket fans. "Need a tip when you're stuck in an awkward situation?" he asks the camera. He then shares a bucket of fried chicken with the unruly crowd. They devour it, bringing them under control. "Too easy," he says.

Now if you're an American, your jaw probably dropped to the floor after watching this clip. If you're not, you're probably wondering what the big deal is. In the US saying that African-Americans eat a lot of fried chicken is an offensive stereotype. I'm not sure where the stereotype developed, and I've never observed it having any basis in fact, but there it is. And I've known since I was a child there are two foods you should just avoid saying in any context involving African-Americans: fried chicken and watermelon. It conjures up all sorts of racist imagery that is deeply offensive.

Of course in Australia, this stereotype doesn't exist. So when Australians heard that Americans had been offended by this ad when they saw it on YouTube, and that American columnists and radio hosts were starting to talk about it - resulting in KFC pulling the ad in Australia - they were perplexed. Actually, they got downright angry. I actually learned about this controversy from an Australian colleague, who couldn't understand what business it was of Americans to stick their noses into an advertisement that wasn't made for them. So I pulled it up and watched it. "Wow" was all I could muster. "You would neeeeever see that in the US."

The general sentiment from the Australian public is that the ad isn't offensive, and that Americans have no right to stick their noses into something that doesn't involve them. This editorial from the Australian reflects the mood of newspaper editorials across the country. And take a look at these comments on this story from the Courier Mail. Arkacia of Brisbane writes:
If people from the West Indies complain about this ad, I'll listen. Sorry Americans, the ad wasn't about you or for you, and has nothing to do with you. What is racist about fried chicken anyway? Don't white Americans eat it?
And Seann from Sydney writes:
This is just another case of the USA thinking the entire world sees the world as they do. This is ad is not racist in Australia (sorry USA we dont belong to you,) and they really need to go suck a lemon. If you see this ad as racist you probably are racist. I thought it was a great cricket pun.
To a certain degree they have a point - Most Americans tend not to know much of anything about what goes on outside their own borders and they assume the rest of the world operates the same way they do. They often assume their own hang-ups are shared by the rest of the world. And of course, it doesn't help that the American stereotype of Australians is that they're all racist rednecks.

But, there's an important distinction here: it's not true that the ad has "nothing to do" with Americans. KFC is an American company. The global headquarters is in America. And when Americans see this ad broadcast abroad by one of their own companies, it looks like KFC is trying to make a racist joke somewhere else where it can get away with it. At the very least, Americans are bound to think that KFC should know better. So you can see why KFC pulled the ad faster than you can say "finger-lickin good". The majority of its sales are still in the US, and it can't afford to alienate people on its home turf. And I suspect that in the future, KFC global headquarters is going to demand to see each ad produced by one of its national affiliates. In the internet age, it's too big a risk to let ads run in one country that could be interpreted very badly in another one.

Blame cultural imperialism I suppose, but I do think that Americans have a right to get mad at one of their own companies if that company is going abroad and saying things that would be offensive at home. If it was an Australian fast food chain making these commercials, nobody in America would have noticed or cared. And the chain certainly wouldn't have pulled the ad in response to American complaints.

Does cultural imperialism extend to racial sensitivities?

The incident brings up an interesting question though: in a globalized world, what is one to do when something is offensive in one country, but not in another. As a sort of "global citizen", I encounter this problem a lot. For instance, here's a good example: Where I grew up in Connecticut, outside New York City, we call stores selling alcohol "package stores". I have no idea why. But for short we'd call the stores a "packy". Well shortly after I moved to the UK I made the mistake of saying to some friends on the way to a party that we could "get some vodka from the packy". That didn't exactly go over well, as "packy" in the UK is an extremely offensive term for an Asian person. Ah yes but here I have to explain. "Asian" in the UK actually means someone from South Asia (i.e. India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh). "Asian" in the US means someone from East Asia (ie China, Japan, Thailand, etc). So what do they call East Asians in the UK? "Oriental"! That took me some getting used to, because "oriental" is an offensive term for Asian people in the US. You can see how it can get confusing. I still can't get used to my British friends calling people "Oriental".

Of course all across Europe they have their own little offensive words for their own national minorities. And as I've lived in Europe, I've found a lot of my American sensitivities about race challenged. From an American standpoint, the things many Europeans say can seem really racially insenstive (at best, or downright racist at worst). But then I have to remind myself that it's a different culture where things don't necessarily mean the same thing. But where do you draw the line? I mean, I can't just keep excusing what seems to me like racist behavior or sentiments just because "it's a different culture, a different context."

Talking about this controversy with a group of Australians and Brits, I was the only one who found that KFC commercial offensive. I know it's a different culture, but from my American perspective it just makes me uncomfortable watching it. And the same goes for that Jackson Five skit in Australia a few months ago that Harry Connick Jr. flipped out about. Blackface is a no-no in the US, always, without exception. But is it ok in other countries because they don't have the same history of minstrel shows? Is it ok for Australians to do blackface? Australians seem to think so.

In an era where most of the television aired in the world is produced in the United States (over 50% of what is on TV in Australia is from America, incidentally) it may just be that these American issues with race do inevitably become the world's issues. After all, you can't have all the hamburgers, action movies, pop music and yes, fried chicken, without also taking on some of the American baggage. And if you're an American chain operating abroad, perhaps you should be careful of the racial sensitivities of your homeland.

So, sorry Australia. But I'm with America on this one.


Grahnlaw said...

It is not getting any easier: Ireland just got itself a blasphemy law offering any religion the opportunity to feel offended and to take legal action.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but the stereotype that Australians are racist is totally true. And when you call them out on it, they always go crazy like this. Why so defensive? Methinks the lady doth protest too much.

Francis said...

There are gazillions of fried chicken shops in Hackney. Black people demonstrably love it. But how is that different from saying there is loads of asian food on Whitechapel Road or Vietnamese restarants in Hoxton?

Fried Chicken, rice and peas, goat, watermelons. Are these all racist in the US?

Americans are weird.

LaTavia said...

Francis, there is a difference between a certain ethnicity having a culinary expertise with a certain type of food and using a type of food to portray an ethni minority as a bunch of animals that can only be tamed with their apecific addiction (in this case fried chicken). Maybe we Americans get this more than other peoples

Rob said...

Um, I have to agree, this commercial is pretty offensive. And that Jackson Five sketch? WTF?? If I were black I don't think I'd want to live in Australia

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