Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Monkey Ad and Obama San

A cell phone company in Japan is being accused of portraying Barack Obama as a monkey in a television advert.

I watched the advert on CNN today and what I saw was a Grey Monkey behind a podium with cheering audience members holding placards that read "change" in capital letters.

The advert was on YouTube but the link I provide here says it has been pulled.

The cell phone company, eMobile, did not see their advert as racially insensitive until a few Black Americans living in Japan approached the company. The company immediately removed the advert from Japanese television.

What was interesting about the CNN report is that they took to the streets in Japan and asked folks if they thought the advert resembled anyone. None of the folks they talked to made a connection with Obama.

When the reporter asked them if the advert was playing off Obama some of the respondents said "ohhhh Obama San" but hardly connected the monkey as a racist affront to the Senator.

Is the advert racist then?

The intent of the advert was to parody Obama's presidential campaign and urge cell users to "change" to eMobile. eMobile has also used a Grey Monkey as their company mascot in other adverts.

Monkeys are "revered" as holy in Japan and not used as a symbol to denigrate Blacks.

I can't, therefore, find the need to make too much out of this advert. eMobile should have known better and they have admitted that the advert represented a "cross-cultural gap issue" and there is reasonable and relative truth in this statement.

I remember an ATT advert that caused an uproar when I lived in Baltimore. ATT was trying to sell a long distance plan and it had a print advert with a world map in which national characters were calling from one continent to the other.

In the US the character making a call had on western-style cowboy attire and the one in Britain was dressed like a Charlie Chaplain charater. On all the continents the characters resembled stereotypical national characters.

The only non-human character making a phone call was a monkey on the continent of Africa. I found that advert to be blatantly racist (ATT pulled that advert).

The monkey as a character that reduces Africans/Blacks to non-humans is a mainstay of racist discourse in the US, Britain, France, etc. In fact, a Utah company was selling Obama sock monkey puppets and t-shirts that show Obama eating a banana.

In the eMobile advert the issue of racism is not so clear cut. And, I understand the argument that says unconscious racism is still racism but I won't go so far in this case.

Should eMobile executives have known about the connection between monkeys, racism, and Black Obama? Absolutely! And they do now.

Cultural sensitivity is a must in our global world. And so is the need to be informed about what race and racism means.

Still, I am going to take a cultural-relativism stand here and not make the cognitive leap to describe the advert as proof of anti-Black racist sentiment by eMobile or the Japanese in general.

I am glad eMobile pulled the advert. What say you?

Onward!

Image Credit

16 comments:

GiGi - The Shy Giraffe said...

hi ridwan,
i miss the commercial you referring to in your post. but i did saw the t-shirt and personally i find it offensive. i don't have to be an african american to understand its sensitivity but you know the white dude that created the tshirt is laughing his ass off to the bank.

sigh, what can i say but ignorant is rampant and running loose back in states. hmm come to think of it.. its global =:O)

Alex said...

Sometimes a monkey is just a monkey.

I agree with most of what you have to say here, but why should a Japanese company presenting a product to the Japanese public be required to know about historical associations with racism in the West? Is this a case of cultural imperialism? Does it only apply to Black people? Why is it not proclaimed racism when President Bush is portrayed as a monkey?

Generally, Japan has not made historical racist claims that Black people are somehow sub-human. In fact, the first Black people to arrive in feudal Japan (as slaves aboard Western vessels, no less) were regarded as "cute" by the Japanese (which may be interpreted as condescending, but not racist).

This campaign to take the eMobile commercial off the air is a social-psychological issue in Western nations that is tainting Japanese society.

"Political Correctness" is taken overboard these days. Refer to this post I made on my blog last year: Politically False.

Shus li said...

Hey, Ridwan!

Food for thought, indeed.

I like that opinions and context were taken into account. The company in question pulled the ad in a nod to sensitivity and cultural-relativism. That sounds like a good thing to me.

As I read this, it brought to mind how bush has been referred to as a "smirking chimp" throughout his stolen presidencies. Now I am wondering who is representing the chimps, because how offensive is it to have their identity ripped off and be associated with dubya? For reals, Dawg.

Hugs from across the globe,
Shusli

Dade said...

I agree with you, Ridwan. The Japanese culture is probably relatively unaware of the monkey/African-American insinuation. As you point out, monkeys are sacred in Japan.

The Japanese don't have a dog in the US election fight. I can't imagine anyone intended to offend with the ad.

niteflyer said...

Hello,
Enjoyed the post and yes I'd agree with your cultural-relativism stance in this instance.

The criticisms against the monkey-ad and the links made with Obama, ironically created a context in which the ad would henceforth always be seen as portraying Obama, a black man, derogatorily as a monkey. Good decision then to pull it - even though the intent may not have been this to begin with. Interesting twist.

Although I'd go so far as to say the cultural insensitivity lay with the first critics of the ad - being insensitive or unconscious, that is, to Japanese culture and the significance of the monkey-iconography etc. And having been sensitised to a particularly crude kind of racism (where the monkey as you've illustrated is indeed used as a discriminatory signifier), reacted inappropriately or over-sensitively. eish, what a conundrum. Talk about mixing metaphors..

This story lends itself perfectly to satire. Humour I'm beginning to think - not the slapstick variety, but the variety where we laugh at ourselves and transcend the inane together - is sorely lacking. It can remind us not to be too precious because actually, no-one is all-knowing.

Ridwan said...

Hello Gigi. Thanks for your comment. I know you saw those banana tee shirts.
Did you see the pin that asks something like "If Obama wins is the White House still white?"?

You know there is more to come.

Be well sista and holla when you can.

Peace,
Ridwan

Anonymous said...

Very interesting situation, I would have to agree with the cultural issue here and on both sides. For the Japanese and for the black americans living in Japan. If the monkey is being used as a mascot for the phone brand then can it be perceived as racist when used as a pariody of Obama? A fine line here.
As for the white guy in the US making monkey t's of Obama, it is clear what message he is sending.
I am not looking forward to more of this stuff and yet I am, I am interested in the conversation that will happen here. Will there be a shift in the racist ideology of the US? I hope so.

Kim

Ridwan said...

Hello Alex. Thanks for looking in and commenting here.

I think it is important for eMobile to know the racist association and history that relates to Blacks and monkeys because they are parodying Obama's presidential campaign.

Most Japanese watching that advert would have to know that Obama is Black.

I am glad that the advert was pulled because it shows that the intent was not to denigrate Obama or Blacks.

It simply is important in this global era for eMobile, and the Japanese in general, to be sensitive and knowing about Black/African history.

At the very least, Blacks/Africans buy Japanese goods hand over fist.

More importantly, knowing the specifics is important because of our collective humanity.

When Blacks are purposefully denigrated and reduced to sub-human it implicates our common humanity.

For this reason, we should know about the historical turmoil that lies under Japanese-Korean relations, for example.

Part of that knowing requires a sensitive appreciation of the us Korean "comfort women" issues and its place in Japanese-Korean relations.

I do not see how calling Bush a monkey is racist. Bush is white and white people are not 'reduced' to monkeys in US racist discourse.

When the racist term "porch monkey" is used we hardly expect that its aim is to describe whites (anywhere).

I do not know about Black slaves in Japan and can't, therefore, comment.

I expect that there are folks in Japan who see Blacks in terms that suggest a racial inferiority.

In fact, a good few years ago a senior Japanese official said Blacks and Latinos did not make good workers because they are lazy and therefore unproductive.

I also expect that there are Black and whites in the US who hold very racist views of the Japanese.

In fact, after Pearl Harbor many Japanese Americans found themselves interned in concentration camps because they were viewed a 'sneaky slant eyed traitors'.

The internment of Japanese Americans was supported by the US government and had disatrious consequences for folks who were mostly loyal US citizens.

Alex I would like to know what you mean when you reference the advert as an issue of "social-psychological tainting".

That said, thanks for the opportunity to discuss the issues some more.

Peace,
Ridwan

Ridwan said...

Shusli thanks for your comment.

I have not come across the reference to Bush as a "smirking chimp" and you gots me cracking up.

I have great love and respect for chimps.

Be well my sista and thanks for the hugs.

Peace and hugs back.

Ridwan

Ridwan said...

Hey there Dade. Thanks for looking in brother.

I was thinking about you when I wrote this post. I knew that you would see what I was getting at here.

When I taught my "Racism" course at PSU there were many many Japanese students who signed up over the years.

They were by and large eager to learn and contributed greatly to my understanding of how to teach the issues to students who come from societies that are not centered on the Black-white binary.

I expect that some folks who know me may be surprised by the post (I think and may be wrong).

I think that those who are calling this advert for its 'obvious' racism are being intellectually lazy and too heavy handed.

Like you, I can't see why eMobile would want to denigrate Blacks, anywhere.

Peace to you brother.

Ridwan

Ridwan said...

*Thanks for your comment Niteflyer. And thanks too for pointing out that the advert now evokes a very permanent association between Obama and monkeys.

You are so right that we need to chill and step back. As you say, this is a learning situation because "no-one is all-knowing."

So very true!

On another note, I have been noticing that the Thought Leader forum is seemingly devolving into more and more reactionary conservative bellowing.

What is up with that?

Anyway, I will holla about that to you later :0)

Peace Niteflyer.

Ridwan

Ridwan said...

Hey there Kim. Thanks for your comment.

I read that those Ts were taken off the market. But there is more out there and equally disturbing.

I see Obama's presidential bid is an exercise in race relations and for this reason it interests me.

I am, however, more drawn to manner that his race/blackness is being managed so as not to 'offend' white conservatives.

I mean the brother is now supporting faith based initiatives ala W.! Who is he talking to with this tired nonsense?

And who is he really talking to when he lectures Black men to be more responsible fathers?

Obama sure knows the other side of the game for sure.

Be well up there Kim :0)

Peace,

Ridwan

Dione said...

Hi Ridwan!
I would say that the Japanese culture as a whole, is actually a lot more sophisticated than western society in a lot of respects, however:
Only the Japanese who live a very-very traditional life style, and on some of those little islands would not have an understanding about the implied racism here. Most Japanese have a very good understanding of the westernized popular culture that has reached almost every land. The advertisers are most certainly aware of the racial connection that has been made with primates and Africans. No intelligent, thinking people would ever make a commercial poking fun at an African American and using a monkey of any kind to make that point. I find it horrific! and this is because I know, that these people know better! I have known Japanese people in the past, who have told me what they think black people look like:( that doesn't mean that every Japanese person feels that way, but they are well aware of their racism. Infact, they prefer to keep their race "pure".
I know my statement contradicts itself. There is a lot good, that Japan does for the world. They tread lightly, understand about utilizing their resources, value their elderly, there is a lot to be learned from them, but racism has not escaped Japan.
I'm irritated to even know about that commercial, and that they are pretending to be ignorant about it.
Of course calling GW Bush, or any white person a monkey does not have the same meaning, but points out that they are a fool, but it isn't racist. I guess you could put Bush's body and photo shop a saltine cracker for his face, but there is no racially derogatory term or symbol that could ever have the same unjust meaning that African Americans face.

Stay well Ridwan,
Dione

Ridwan said...

Thanks kindly for adding your voice Dione.

I hear what you are saying and I think that you raise important points beyond this advert.

But do remember that eMobile uses a Grey Monkey in its other adverts.

That said, it is plausible to expect that they should have known about the connection but then Japanese society venerates monkeys.

The fact that they removed the advert is significant though. It speaks against the assumption that eMobile sought to denigrate Obama and Blacks in general.

You be well too Dione.

Peace,
Ridwan

Anonymous said...

When I heard that he was supporting the faith based program, I screamed at my radio in my car. Later I heard the whole story, that he wants to keep them separate from the government, in that they can not use their faith in their programs. Which has upset the conservative faith orgs, because they want the govs money to spread their faith. Oh well. I also liked that he included all faiths not just the christian ones. I know that this may be a ploy to get support from the religious right, but when will this country really live by the separation of church and state.
Thanks to Regan we have become a country lead by the christian right and they have continued to try to strangle rights from all US citizens.
This campaign will be a very interesting one. I hope it brings us together with out constricting setiments of being true americans.

Kim

Ridwan said...

Hey Kim thanks for adding a little more meat to the faith-based program(s) Obama is talking about.

He is definitely reaching out and this makes for an interesting campaign.

Peace Kim.

Ridwan