Blackened by whiteness [pg. 15]

Why do the people who write TV commercials think we're so easily manipulated?

By TOM HOPE
January 5, 2006 02:15
4 minute read.

 
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TV commercials often get on my nerves. Some are jarringly noisy, some are ridiculous and pointless, most fail to mention even one pertinent fact about the product being plugged, and some suffer from all of the above. Kevin Roberts, CEO of an international ad agency, was reported to have said recently that Israeli commercials are inefficient. He didn't say that many are downright strange. One that really gets my hackles up was shot in a purported POW camp in Vietnam and depicts the prisoners capering merrily, Broadway-style, while singing "I like this movie." For the viewers' additional amusement, they are tortured and locked in cages. Most commercials aren't so obscene, but use different cons. One, for example, jumps from one scene to the next with the word "commitment" repeated in each. The first scene is of a woman lying next to a white dog and its white puppies and whispering to it. Then courageous soldiers in white T-shirts labor under a stretcher with a look of agony and devotion in their eyes while a young female soldier in a white shirt sits on the hood of a jeep, smiling. Then a soccer player - wearing a white jersey - jumps up and down waiting to begin what seems to be the match of his life. What are they selling? A bank, and its "commitment" to customers. There is a connection between those scenes which the bank may not want us to notice, but rather absorb subliminally. Commercials seek to tie a certain ambiance or emotion to a product in an underlying manner which is not necessarily rational. The underlying theme in the bank ad is not commitment, but the color white. White is the color of purity, benevolence and happiness. But let's not forget that white is also a skin color, the color of the "stronger," more affluent race. In Israel it is the color associated with Jews of European decent, or Ashkenazim. The "whiteness" of that commercial made my mind begin churning. I wondered how prevalent the color white is in ads - not in objects such as garments and linens, but on human skin. THERE IS a prime-time current affairs program followed by news that I watch. As we all know, at those hours ads pop up far too often. One evening I took a pen and piece of paper and noted ads in which the complexion of all the actors was white, and those in which it was not only white. (Although not all white Jews are Ashkenazi, dark skin is more associated with Sephardim, and choosing only light-skinned actors might suggest an attempt to create a white image.) For animations, I counted which had announcers with Ashkenazi accents, and which did not. Another list counted the ads which were in English. The results did not surprise me. In 19 of 21 Hebrew-speaking ads, people were only white, and in two there was a mix. The latter were both about humous. Let's call one of these "Ad X." As for the 12 animations, only one was narrated in a clearly Sephardi accent; let's call it "Ad Y." Five commercials were in English, and all those characters were white. To sum up, 35 of the 38 commercials I saw were white only The three exceptions were not surprising either. In Ad X, a Sephardi family is sitting watching soccer (of course) while the mother, who is portrayed as a kind but somewhat foolish woman (of course) serves the father and two sons humous (of course). She speaks with a Sephardi accent and sounds stupid, while blocking the family's view of what I suspect some copywriters perceive as the pinnacle of Sephardi culture - a soccer match. Ad Y is for a pizza delivery service. The delivery man says at the end, in a Sephardi accent and threatening tone: "We know where you live, hah!" ONE COMMERCIAL I have not mentioned is of a woman - ironically - making a TV ad for jam. She has a white complexion but the Mizrahi accent of a frecha - defined by a slang dictionary as a "mega-coutured female characterized by stiletto heels and language to match." Either way, she looks and sounds like a real dimwit. She tries repeatedly to pronounce the French name of the product, but it comes out in a Mizrahi accent. Then she tastes the product and suddenly her accent is perfectly European, an aura envelops her, and her hair is fetchingly wafted by a gentle breeze. Commercials try to sell products and touch the public. They do so in a way the copywriters deem appropriate to the culture of the country they live in. If these misbegotten and oversimplified conventions are popular among the target society, it is safer to stick to them. They tap into our misconceptions and manipulate them. Ads reflect our society's stereotypes. Mizrahim are depicted as fools, criminals, and people who eat only humous and watch only soccer. As for Arabs, Ethiopians and haredim (who are black in attire if not complexion), they are almost completely invisible. When they are shown, they are indigent and portrayed as inferior and imbecilic. They are in the backseat of our consumer society, so they don't deserve to be on television. As one commercial for washing powder couches it: "Israelis know that white wins." Indeed, white wins. Whites have the money, and are therefore flattered by the advertisers and portrayed as smart and cultured. Well, dear copywriters, I've got news for you. I know Sephardim, and I know dark-skinned people, and I know Ethiopians and Israeli Arabs. They are cultured and intelligent. I am an Ashkenazi who loves watching soccer and eating humous, and I was a terrible student. Get out of the stereotypical framework you built for yourselves and us. Try depicting reality for a change. The writer, who has just graduated high school, lives in Jerusalem.

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