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Stereotypes and the chocolate factory

ZingoloCadbury’s have been accused of racial stereotyping in a publicity campaign for fairtrade chocolate, but it’s not as bad as that says Lester Holloway

The Independent on Sunday quotes campaigners criticising an ad campaign for “perpetuating colonial stereotypes of African people”, but I fear the critics may be going overboard this time.

The advert, which you can view here in short and long versions, features a giant hovering wooden head that emerges from an artists shed and heads to the local village where locals proceed to dance about wildly.

So far, so bad. But there are some redeeming features to the campaign as well.

Lester Holloway

Lester Holloway

The Negro features on the floating head are renascent of a strong theme that has long been evidence in sub-Saharan art.

It looks to me more like an artefact produced in Africa, rather than a Western caricature of Nubian facial characteristics. Of course, that is a matter of judgement, and judgement can be subjective.

And while there is a problematic association with African villagers entirely with dancing – which risks reinforcing stereotypes about black people as entertainers – it would be stretching it to claim that the portrayal of the villagers was that of “simpletons”, as alleged in the IoS article.

There is a distinction between dancing to a beat and completely losing oneself into trance-like state; and what I saw was the former. The dancing was quite controlled, at times choreographed. There were a couple of brief shots of booty-shaking moments, but nothing you won’t see in your local nightclub, from clubbers of all races.

Again, different pairs of eyes can see very different subtexts, but watching the advert I didn’t sense a reviving of the shameful history of black people being portrayed in Western media as grinning, dancing, sexualised people without intelligence.

There is, of course, a fine balance between this insidious portrayal, compared to the showing of natural celebration; free spirits with lives and characters who, for a while, put aside the daily toil of life and get down to some good vibes.

I thought the latest advert fell just the right side of this line, which may be the result of involving Ghanaians in the whole project.

The advert had an air of west African authenticity that was not patronising, but celebratory. Yes, it would have been preferable to show teachers and lawyers, businesspeople and inventors, heroes and statesmen.

But we also have to sometimes choose our battles, and invest real effort where seriously harmful stereotypes about Africa are being peddled.

There continues to be far worse imagery used about Africans in the Western media, particularly with strong associations to voodoo, but the Cadbury’s advert is hardly in this category. You could also argue that the advert showcases modern Ghanaian music.

This is not to excuse Cadbury’s completely. As the IoS article points out, Cadbury’s has been here before with their commercials for Trident chewing gum, featuring a manic character with a suspiciously fake Jamaican accent and a megaphone, giving the impression he’d been on something slightly stronger than peppermint.

That campaign, in 2007, was quite rightly condemned for being racially offensive. The gum ad, made by JWT, fell down because it was clearly created by executives who neither understood Caribbean culture, nor appreciated the

The chocolate industry has provoked several controversies in the past. In 2004, Masterfoods, who produce Galaxy ice-cream, rightly was forced to drop a billboard campaign featuring the racist slogan “eeny, meeny, miney, mo…”, a line that is infamous for ending with the n-word.

On that occasion, it was Operation Black Vote who kicked up a fuss, and to their credit Masterfoods responded.

But in the case of Cadbury’s it appears that we have a company trying to get in right, and promoting a fairtrade product that (we are led to believe) benefits the people of Ghana.

Watching the advert, I felt slightly uncomfortable, wondering what this was supposed to achieve, but was not filled with a sense that this was laden with racial stereotypes.

Others may disagree, and are entitled to. But the dangers that we might too easily jump to calling every portrayal of African imagery in the mainstream as a perpetuation of stereotypes, thereby scaring off companies from attempting genuine and well-intentioned reflections of African life on TV.

We desperately need positive representations of Africa on our TV screens. The latest Cadbury’s advert was, I believe, an attempt to step in that direction. It was not perfect, and as a viewer I wondered what it was trying to say, but ultimately my conclusion was that it’s heart was in the right place. And that’s a good place to start.


One Response

  1. i love this ad – real tast of ghana. love tinny too – good to see his music reppd

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