An electronic "call for entries” from the Art Directors Club wound up in my inbox a few weeks ago. It features a youngish black man wearing a puffy red ‘fro wig. He’s dressed in a faux fast-food costume - part Ronald McDonald, part Burger King. With his right hand, he presents a glowing golden cube to the viewer. “Pimp My Brand” is rendered in bubblish golden type and floats above his head, the letters mingling with his Technicolor ‘do.
(Take a look: http://www.adcawards.org/images/85CFE.jpg)
I opened the email and stared. This is a joke, I said to myself. Aloud. Someone must have hacked into the ADC site and spammed me with this Stepin Fetchit-style gem. After all, how could any New York City creative living in 2005 be so backward as to trade in such stupid clichés? A nameless black man tarted up as a pimp for the Art Directors Club brand? (His uniform bears the ADC logo – in gold, of course.) It’s so circa 1930, so Aunt Jemima. What “creative” organization would be clueless enough to sponsor such work? But the campaign is for real I learned from the folks at ADC.
“I am not a, hypersensitive thin-skinned person of color,” I wrote in an email to officers and board members of ADC. “I am a regular-old black person, writer/photographer/filmmaker, familiar with advertising and pop culture.”
“Your email ad uses a hackneyed stereotype of black men to promote your program,” I wrote, indulging in a redundancy. (What stereotype isn’t hackneyed?) “It is sad, and I think it speaks more to a discomfort with black men than an appreciation of us … American popular culture so often treats black folks and other people of color as symbols, not as individuals….”
I got a call from Brian Collins, ADC’s vice president, a few hours after I sent the email. He expressed concern about my concerns, and said he’d like to start a dialogue. Instead of "dialogue", I got a boilerplate email from ADC’s Executive Director, Myrna Davis.
“Thank you for taking the time to write to us about the ADC’s 85th Annual Awards Call for Entries,” Davis wrote. “It is important to know what our constituents think -- even, or perhaps especially, when negative -- and your concerned response deserves a reply. Our intent was not to offend, of course, but to comment on a trend that seems to be growing, that is, where mainstream brands are running into the arms of ‘urban culture’ and vice versa.”
Rappers and simulated hip-hoppers ("Show 'em my motto!") shilling for big corporations is a trend? Huh? It's old news. What's newer and more interesting is the growing number of hip-hop moguls - Master P., Puffy/Diddy, Jay-Z, 50 Cent – who have broken into the mass-marketing game and built multimillionaire-dollar empires. The ADC campaign curiously embraces the shills, the contemporary equivalents of Aunt Jemima, and ignores the moguls.
ADC chief Davis continues her defense of “Pimp My Brand” by citing the campaign's references to MTV’s show Pimp My Ride and to the Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali Esquire covers of the 1960s by George Lois. (Both covers are in a November piece posted on mediabistro - http://www.mediabistro.com/articles/cache/a6115.asp)
Whoa! ADC’s collective ass flaps in the breeze here, though Davis struggles mightily to cover it. First off, to compare their banal "Pimp" product to Lois’s groundbreaking work is absurd and weirdly self-aggrandizing.
The Lois covers Davis cites – the tight headshot of prizefighter Sonny Liston wearing a Santa Claus hat and the staging of Muhammad Ali pierced with arrows, after the martyrdom of St. Sebastian – are sharply nuanced, timely, and provocative works. The covers capture Ali and Liston as icons and as individuals; they are portraits of recognizable, accomplished, and yes, (to some) fearsome black men, but they are not caricatures. Both covers challenged Esquire’s largely white readership to imagine a “universal” (read: white) symbol recast as a black man. The covers forced Esquire readers to look at themselves, at their prejudices and their privileges. Lois's covers challenged a racist status quo. The ADC ad reinforces it.
ADC's Pimp My Ride reference is also easily demolished. The MTV show uses “pimp” in its current hip-hop sense, as a verb, to trick out or detail outlandishly. ADC mashes up the term's current meaning with its dated blaxpoitation definition to produce a message that evokes Huggy Bear from Starsky Hutch. The only thing that resembles Pimp My Ride is borrowed name - and the race of the central figure in both products. But PMR’s host, Xzibit (né Alvin Joiner), ain’t no pimp. He presides over the pimping of rides. He's black, he doesn't speak Oxford English, and he's an empathic, emphatic and intelligent man. Xzibit’s individuality shines through, even on a TV show as blatantly commercial as PMR.
Advertising, entertainment – all flavors of pop culture - reduce real people to symbols. Advertising in particular hunts for shortcuts to the fabled collective cultural psyche to titillate, inform, and, ultimately, sell. Creative advertising taps into what’s new and provocative and distills it. Derivative, lazy, and just-plain bad advertising recycles cliché and stereotype. ADC’s campaign slides into the latter category.
“Pimp My Brand” is a muddled conflation of superficial aspects of hip-hop culture – the lingo, the gold, the in-your-face posturing - with blackness. The model’s blackness is the ad’s salient feature. Otherwise, why not be truly ironic and use a pimply white teenager? This would actually mirror the appropriation of hip-hop by mainstream (read: white) culture. Because – and this is theory, not fact – black equals pimp to the ad’s creators. A black man isn’t a person, he's simply a convenient symbol for a basket of mainstream obsessions with blackness – street cred, gangstaness, pimphood. At worst, the campaign reflects a fear of black individuality. It betrays an anxiety about and discomfort with us as anything more than subjects of their imagination - or as their props. At best, it displays ignorance and laziness.