Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Marketing the Black/White Dichotomy: Where the Toyota Swagger Wagon Goes Wrong

This is a guest post from Godheval

image I am a writer, a philosopher, a dreamer, and an idealist.  I have no credentials worth mentioning, and I don't presume to know anything about anything.  I am merely a man, and a person of color, and I am always contemplating what that means for me and my relationship to the rest of the world.  That relationship is negotiated by an overwhelming sense of justice, something I mitigate with a harsh rationality lest I come completely undone by my emotions.  I blog about social issues, culture, politics, philosophy, and entertainment at Godheval.net.

This is me, sighing.

Maybe this is another case of me being "hypersensitive", but so be it. If you're a white person or a particularly assimilated person of color, then you'll probably think this is a rather harmless video.

You may think it's funny. Hilarious, even.

If you’re a person of color with even an iota of militancy, or hell, if you’re me, then this commercial probably makes you cringe, or just plain annoys you.

But perhaps you're not entirely sure why. So I'll tell you why it irritates me, and maybe my explanation will make something click for you.

First of all, it's cultural appropriation.  Which means that an element of a given culture is taken and used outside of its intended context - worse yet, in blatant opposition to the intended context.  From Wikipedia:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behaviour. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

Hip-hop, and rap in particular, by no measure of historical revisionism or denial of their contributions, is undoubtedly an African-American cultural product.

This, however, does not mean that it belongs exclusively to African-Americans, or that no one else can use it.  The rule, though, is that it should be used in the spirit in which it was intended.  That is, as an expression of positivity, uplift, counter-establishment, or justified anger towards historic and lasting inequality and/or injustice.

People around the world have used hip-hop brilliantly and properly - from the Palestinians speaking out against Apartheid conditions in Israel, to the righteous anger from the socially marginalized of the Parisian banlieues, to Somalian rapper K'naan speaking about abject poverty.  And let's not forget M.I.A., who in spite of generating mainstream appeal, has managed to keep her message authentic and political.

There are countless examples of where hip-hop and rap are used incorrectly – just look at the majority of mainstream rap today.  By African-American artists, no less.  But remember that bit I told you about appropriation?  Well, as much as I despise commercial mainstream garbage rap, the fact of the matter is that, as an African-American cultural product, rap is free for African-Americans to do with as they please.

If you own a television, it is your right to use it as a surfboard, even if it means you are rushing headlong down a slippery slope towards self-annihilation.  That was not merely an analogy, but a metaphor.

If someone else were to come in and use your television as a surfboard, well…you’d be pretty justified in wanting to smash said TV over their heads.  The smash-impulse I speak of is neither an analogy, nor a metaphor.  Which brings me back to the Toyota commercial.

Here we have a fictional white family, with all of the privilege, normativeness, and inherent “rightness” their mere existence implies, members of the “dominant” culture, appropriating the music, language, and projected mannerisms of African-American culture (“minority” culture) and using it in a way that completely contradicts the intended spirit.

Hip-hop, should I need to remind you, was originally all about countering the establishment – an establishment built-in with various mechanisms and controls to ensure that African-Americans would never stand on equal footing with white people.  An establishment that would deny the average black family access to the so-called “American Dream”, which the white family in this commercial exemplifies to a truly laughable extreme.  I mean, they even seemed to choose the blondest babies imaginable to ram the point home.

Contrary to this “wholesome” symbol of white normalcy, hip-hop and rap for the most part – in spite of their mainstream commercial appeal – are regarded as less than ideal, unworthy, “not music”, “ghetto”, “stupid”, “irresponsible”, promoting all the wrong values.  That last bit – about values – is interesting, because of course hip-hop would never promote “white values” – white being “right”, of course – where African-Americans were not given access to the same livelihoods and cultural environment within which such “values” would flourish.

This is not to say that such values – personal responsibility, emphasis on the family, etc. – are foreign or unimportant to African-Americans.  They are equally, if not more important, in an environment that regularly creates obstacles to achieving the ideal.  Hip-hop and rap, though, were the response to that environment.

So this video, in its promotion of white normalcy and wholesomeness, not-so-subtly implies a black/white dichotomy wherein the white family champions family values and the American Dream, in stark contrast to the mainstream rap music of today, which places a premium on materialism, excess, selfishness, and often violence.

“Where are the kids?” seems particularly meaningful when we consider the stigma against black families as being “broken” – having absentee parents, teen parents, or otherwise not “doing right” by their children.  No worries about the white family, though – their two little Aryans are close at hand.

The white family drives the station wagon, with the car seats in the back, while rappers show off their financially unwise and unsustainable Escalades or even fancier cars, symbols of their excess and irresponsibility.

The whole commercial screams – or maybe whispers for most of you – this paternalistic message of: “Here, let us show you what you’re supposed to be doing.”

It is important to note here that when hip-hop and rap were definitively anti-establishment, flew arms-swinging into the face of white normativeness, there were no attempts to appropriate them.  They were swiftly and decisively demonized, devalued, dismissed as invalid and inappropriate.  The average white person would have sooner taken a shit on a rap album as purchase one.  Their children who embraced the music or the culture were regarded cautiously at best- parents hoping it to be just as a fad (as it could only ever be) – or punished at worst.  They were ridiculed by their peers and regarded as niggers-by-association, the word of choice being “wigger”.

But then something happened.  White businessmen, as they had with Jazz, Blues, Soul, Rock, and other forms of black music before, saw the money-making potential of rap music.  They may not have wanted it for their own children, but they recognized it as perfect for consumption by other white children who could use it as the ultimate symbol of rebellion against everything their parents stood for – that is, everything white.  That the sizeable minority of African-Americans would also buy the albums in large quantities was an added bonus.

And so was rap music corporatized – warped and perverted into a commercial product far-removed from its original purpose; something achieved by the silver tongues of businessmen appealing to the sensibilities of those with very little, with promises of what they never had – and, for the most part, still wouldn’t have even after the deals were signed.

When deciding which of the wide variety of rap music to push into the mainstream market, the businessmen chose those who emphasized the black/white dichotomy in the most extreme way – the “gangsta” rappers – the music which further reinforced just how far black people were from the white ideal of family values and personal responsibility.  It was the portion of rap that the kids of white suburbia would most embrace, thereby generating the highest profit.

The rappers themselves, beneath a superficial layer of anger and violence, often had important messages to relay – but these messages were lost on a market that had neither any frame of reference within which to process them, nor any real interest in hearing them.  The music that stayed completely true to hip-hop’s original spirit, what we today call “conscious rap”, was kept in the margins.  Not only because it continued to speak against white businesses’ appropriation of hip-hop, but because their message, more readily accessible without the superficial layer of violence, was not marketable to white suburbia, nor was it something that the establishment wanted people to hear.

So make no mistake.  While much of mainstream rap music today disgraces the spirit of hip-hop, its popularity and mass-marketing is the direct result of cultural appropriation.  What little wealth or acclaim it grants a handful of African-American artists – often short-lived – is a mere consolation prize for the wholesale theft of a cultural product.

The Swagger Wagon Toyota commercial, in implicitly pointing an accusatory finger at mainstream rap music, and African-Americans by proxy, again aims to make a profit by promoting a black/white dichotomy that reinforces white righteousness.  And anything that validates the current social pecking order is ripe for consumption by those at the top.

As an added bonus, the commercial even elicits a few hearty chuckles.  Hee mother fucking hee.

While I have zero doubts about what this commercial is saying, implicit though it may be, I cannot say with any conviction whether or not this loaded message was intentional.  White privilege, white normativeness, white standards, white values, and the black/white dichotomy – these things are all built into the foundation of American society.  This video may truly have been an innocuous attempt at humour, but one that echoed from that foundation.

I’ll ignore, lest I get carried away with my analysis, the fact that the commercial itself is in black and white.

The people who made it, having already embraced the dichotomy, may not even have been aware of all of the implications – just enough in the abstract to recognize how it would speak well to the sensibilities of other white people.  Such is the essence of good marketing, which as any self-aware capitalist will tell you, is often mutually exclusive from any ethical or moral good.