Friday, September 25, 2009

Nike Commercial Makes Black Athlete Look Like…an Animal? An Alien? What?

This is a guest post from femonade

This Adrian Peterson Nike commercial has been playing for the last few weeks…and its so horrible, I literally have to turn my head whenever it comes on.  WTF?  A black man cant be a great athlete without likening him to…an animal?  An alien?  Something inhuman, and some manner of scaly-skinned freak?

Here's what Nike had to say about their new “Nike pro-combat” campaign:

Peterson’s dynamic talents and powerful on-field persona are portrayed in “Alter Ego”, but it’s the image of last season’s NFL’s rushing leader sitting on front of his locker at game’s end that provide the title for the ad. A 3-D overlay treatment of the distinctive Nike Pro Combat deflex pattern on Peterson’s skin is symbolic of an implied transformational experience for athletes who wear the product, and creates a visually compelling closing to the ad.

m-kay.  He isn't supposed to look like an animal, his “embossed” skin is supposed to resemble the texture of their new protective gear.  Are we really supposed to believe Nike's claims here:  that they intend to convey to the consumer that pro-athlete Adrian Peterson has transformed into a shoe?  literally not. buying.  it.

In my estimation, the best-case scenario here is that Nike wanted not to give a black man animalistic or inhuman qualities, but used “texturized” black skin to evoke a skin-branding ritual with a sordid history, but that has been somewhat reclaimed recently by black fraternities.  Sadly, I suspect I am being very generous here, but even if that were Nike’s true intent, evoking skin-branding is not unproblematic.  In reality, skin-branding is literally a dehumanizing ritual that has roots in slave-ownership, where animals and people were branded to broadcast to whom said property belonged.  Besides, rich, white corporate types don't get to “reclaim” offensive language and images for profit (see here for a discussion about a new mobility scooter called “The Spazz”). But let’s stop pretending that skin-branding was the message contemplated, or easily read into, Nike's newest campaign.

Quite obviously, portraying black people as inhuman “animals” has roots in black American slavery, where black women and men were literally bought and sold as property.  Black physicality and sexuality have been and are currently treated as if they were “animalistic” rather than human in nature, and particularly when considering the historical context, that's a problem.  (does Nike not know this?  please).

Stereotypes of black men being athletically gifted, as well as “hung like horses” persist, along with an uncomfortable “upside” of this othering: these traits are also viewed as complimentary, or a sexual or competitive challenge.  Black female sexuality is also viewed as animalistic and a commodity, but perhaps without a comparable benefit to black women: women as a class are severely devalued in our culture of deadbeat dads and conservative fiscal attitudes, where women and children are not joyfully supported, and women's autonomy and well-being are politicized by the rhetoric of reproductive “choice.”

Big dicks and jungle fever might be fun to fantasize about for some, but there are grave and tangible consequences to these stereotypes, and the price is paid daily by black families.  Blacks are underrepresented as high-wage earners, in college enrolment, as elected officials, and in the upper echelons of the corporate and financial elite.  This is almost certainly related to the stereotyping of young, black bodies: there are ongoing consequences to the discrimination blacks face as young people, from the first time they are seen as sexual, and therefore a threat.

When young black men are unfairly viewed as being animalistic and out of control, and then surveilled, arrested and prosecuted if and when they cross the line, and given harsh prison sentences for even relatively minor crimes, (link) the consequences linger.  For example, third and subsequent drug convictions can lead to indefinite or permanent ineligibility for federal student loans.  And young black women are viewed as a sexual commodity by black men and others, but are left to languish in poverty and with few options if they become pregnant in the process.

In fact, the dichotomous stereotype of black female sexuality as ”jemima versus jezebel” seems particularly likely to result in early pregnancy:

[T]he sexual revolution of the 70s and 80s did not run very deep in matters of sex as it plays out in black life. So the black Baptist preachers seem to have the last word on black sexual ethics, these days. And their ambivalence toward sexuality is legendary, witness Jesse Jackson.  [...]  black female sexuality is governed more by the inadequacies of black Protestantism, puritanical to the core, and unable to confront matters of sex and sexuality beyond the proscriptions in the Bible. The attitude is, Don’t ask, don’t tell. Be silent. Thus the general response of these young women is that their mothers told them wait until marriage before sex, and nothing more. They all thought it was good motherly advice. Few however followed it.

and again, the effects linger.  On the issue of young mothers’ access to a college education, the christian science monitor reports:

Beyond [having no available on-campus undergraduate mothers'] housing and child care, these women sometimes face another challenge: stereotypes about young mothers. “Right now in our society it’s deemed that if you’re a young parent, you’re doing it wrong, and you’ve ruined your life,” Ms. Alemar says. “Twenty years ago, if you had a kid at 30, it was [considered] odd. Now if you have a baby before 30, it’s odd.”

Nike is surely making a bundle using racially and sexually offensive images to sell shoes and athletic equipment.  But as we often have to ask regarding corporate activities, what is the affect on the rest of us?  Black men and women are shouldering the burden of this “othering” and whites gain status whenever that happens.  But it’s a complicated matter, when everyone’s desire is created within a corporate and consumer culture that has no regard for our welfare, and serves only its own interests, and those of its shareholders.  (see here for Nike’s own “corporate responsibility” page).

Men and women of all races, so long as they have the desire and the disposable income, are going to purchase big-name products, if for no other reason than that there are few alternatives.  People may even go out of their way to purchase the Nike brand specifically, due to the quality and availability of their products, or the image their advertising firms have created.

Worse, Nike obviously has every reason to believe that this offensive ad will cause sales to increase, or they wouldn't have done it.  What did their marketing department discover in their research that lead them to this conclusion?  What is it about American corporate and consumer culture that's going to almost certainly bear out that result?  Note Nike’s message to its investors:  they are a “growth company,” founded on the premise that “if you have a body, you are an athlete.”  Perhaps it would be more honest for Nike to have said to all of us “if you have a body, you are a consumer.”  Message intended, message received.  now…WTF is up with that ad?