Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Archive for February, 2008

Were the Panda Super Bowl Ads Racist?

Sunday, February 10th, 2008

Now here’s a ready-made blog post for me: mix pandas with Super Bowl advertising, and then throw in societal attitudes about racism, which have been examined more than once here at Today’s Workplace (and are certainly at the heart of Workplace Fairness’s mission). At the intersection of all these things, you have the reaction to SalesGenie.com’s Super Bowl ad. Was it racist? Should it have been pulled and/or never made in the first place? I’m not sure I have any answers, but it certainly provides all of us with an opportunity to constantly examine our own attitudes.

For those who don’t know me, I’m more than a casual panda fan. I volunteer at the National Zoo here in Washington, DC, as an interpreter on the Asia Trail, which means that I talk to Zoo visitors about the exhibit’s seven species and engage them in the Zoo’s conservation and educational mission (although of course, anything I say here should not be attributed to the Zoo or representative of its opinion on anything.) I also have built a website, Pandapoly: All Pandas. All the Time, which is designed to educate and entertain anyone who cares about giant pandas.

So I was most excited when I learned a few days prior to the game that there would be a Super Bowl ad featuring pandas. (See Animation Magazine article.) I learned that it would run in the third quarter, so made sure I was still watching. (Luckily, this Super Bowl turned out to be an exciting game, and close throughout, so there was no chance of me tuning out before then anyway.)

I’m also a reasonably avid NFL fan — and a fan of Super Bowl advertising. Those who have followed Workplace Fairness’ work for a while may remember the report we issued two years ago prior to the Super Bowl: Third and Long: Will Super Bowl Advertisers Make the Big Play for Workplace Fairness? I wrote the report, and it was one of my favorite projects of my professional career, combining my interest in sports, popular culture, and workplace issues. So reviewing the ads was right down my alley.

Here’s the ad:

So what do you think? Is it offensive? funny? memorable?

Enough people were offended by Ling Ling’s Chinese accent that SalesGenie was forced to pull the ad shortly after it aired during the Super Bowl. Vin Gupta, head of SalesGenie’s parent company, issued an apology, saying,

We never thought anyone would be offended. The pandas are Chinese. They don’t speak German. [I]f I offended anybody, believe me, I apologize.

(See New York Times article.)

Just by reading the comments following the Times article, it’s clear there’s a wide diversity of opinion, between Asians and non-Asians, and between people who thought it was harmless vs. those who thought it was extremely racist. There’s obviously no right answer — everyone brings a different perspective to the discussion, but here are a few thoughts:

  • Of course the pandas are going to have a Chinese accent — all pandas originate in China. As Gupta said, they don’t speak German.
  • Is the problem that not all the pandas had a Chinese accent? Or that the pandas spoke in accented broken English? Certainly, their accents did not present any communication barrier — it was possible to understand what they were saying.
  • There are a number of people who speak with accents and/or do not speak gramatically perfect English. When I recently went to Spain, a server made fun of my companion’s poor Spanish accent and demanded he speak in English. Was that insensitive? Or simply a fact? (He did speak Spanish with the accent of a white male from Virginia.)
  • Was Gupta planning to run a controversial ad just to create even more buzz, or did he really think no one would be offended by the ad he personally created? (He is half-Indian, half-Jewish, and says that people often make fun of his accent.)
  • How worked up should we get about a commercial? An animated one, to boot? It’s not like actual people, even actors, were set up to be treated stereotypically. Or actual people were insulted, like in the Don Imus situation.

I’m all for deferring to the sensitivities of minority groups in many occasions where I’m not personally offended, recognizing that I don’t necessarily have the personal experience to shape my sensitivities in the same way. I’m wondering whether in this instance, however, whether the reaction might have been a little overboard.

It’s too bad that it takes a Super Bowl ad to provoke such conversations about race, language, and culture. It’s also too bad that there have been so many instances of people having their manner of speaking ridiculed that such a high level of sensitivity has developed around any use of accented English. And it’s really too bad the pandas won’t be stars for a little while longer.

Election Has Workplace Implications

Saturday, February 9th, 2008

It’s an election year. If this has escaped your notice, you either 1) don’t live in the United States; or 2) must never watch television, read a newspaper, or use the Internet (and since you’re reading this, the latter is probably not true.) In the primaries, both major parties and many candidates (even though the field has narrowed considerably recently) have bombarded the public with their messages until anyone but the most extreme political junkie is thoroughly sick of it by now (and it’s only February.) So it shouldn’t be a surprise that news articles are already circulating that tie the candidates to specific workplace trends and policies.

Hillary Clinton:
Marcia Heroux Pounds uses Hillary Clinton’s candidacy as a reason to examine the persistence of stereotypes against women leaders. Women who back Sen. Clinton’s candidacy decry what they see as the inherent sexism in which some of the criticisms of her candidacy are rooted. According to Evelyn Murphy, a Clinton backer who is former lieutenant governor in Massachusetts and author of Getting Even: Why Women Don’t Get Paid Like Men — And What to Do About It:

Biases and stereotypes are there. Here’s a woman who is clearly more experienced, more substantive in policies than her opponents, but is now being abandoned by her previous supporters.

(See Sun-Sentinel article.) Will having Sen. Clinton elected as president change anything? Yes, says Margaret Heffernan, author of How She Does It:

A woman as president would be ‘empowering and inspiring, both for women in the corporate world and their daughters. It changes the game in itself. It means there will be future female candidates. Once you’ve seen someone in that position, you can see others.’

(See Sun-Sentinel article.)

Barack Obama:
Career columnist Penelope Trunk explains (sort of, anyway) how Barack Obama’s discussion of generational issues in politics has its corollary in the workplace.

He’s very tactful as he disses the boomers. He makes it clear that he’s a bridge builder, respectful of the fact that everyone has a place in history. And he is, above all, someone with empathy for diverse backgrounds. These are all the same kinds of skills we need in the workplace today.

(See The Hook article.) While the article seems at times a flimsy excuse to either promote Sen. Obama’s candidacy or talk about Trunk’s own life experiences, certainly whoever is elected as president will set a tone for our national discourse that will undoubtedly spill over into other aspects of life, including the workplace. Whether the generational implications will be as strong as Trunk describes them, either now or if Sen. Obama is elected, is another matter.

John McCain:

While there haven’t been too many articles yet linking John McCain to the workplace, there have started to crop up articles questioning Sen. McCain’s expertise on economic issues. While the economy seems primed to be a major issue in this election, Sen. McCain said this while campaigning in New Hampshire: “The issue of economics is not something I’ve understood as well as I should. I’ve got Greenspan’s book.” (See CBS News article.) Although McCain has now tried to distance himself from that comment, it’s not the first time the issue has come up.

In a 2005 Wall Street Journal interview, McCain said, “I’m going to be honest: I know a lot less about economics than I do about military and foreign policy issues. I still need to be educated.” (See Wall Street Journal article.)

If McCain is elected President, I think that education could happen quite quickly, but some might expect more in advance of his election than reading a Greenspan book or two.

Contrast Between the Parties:

The deceptively-named Center for Equal Opportunity already has its president and general counsel, Roger Clegg, issuing doomsday predictions about what’s at stake if a Democratic nominee is elected:

Now that the excitement of Super Tuesday has passed, we should remember the kinds of policies and principles at stake. Exhibit A: three pieces of legislation pending in Congress that would dramatically increase the liability of private companies for alleged acts of employment discrimination. The first would resurrect the discredited idea of “comparable worth.” The second would add various sexual orientations to the classifications protected from employment discrimination. The third is a plaintiffs’ bar wish list, aimed mostly at overturning cases it lost in the Supreme Court.

(See Wall Street Journal article.) While these three measures can be considered priorities for Democratic members of Congress, and almost certainly will get more significant consideration from a Democratic president than a Republican one, their passage is by no means certain, even with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in Congress. There is certainly a contrast between the parties, and while both sides hope their favorite measures will receive due consideration if their candidates are elected, it would be surprising if employment issues are at the top of anyone’s list, except perhaps for the Supreme Court, which does seem to be accepting an increased number of employment-related cases these days. (See HR Executive Magazine article.)

Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart?

No, Wal-Mart isn’t running for president. But you wouldn’t know it from this article in the New York Times: Wal-Mart: The New Washington.

The nation’s largest private employer sure sounds like it’s running for president these days.

It’s making sweeping commitments to reduce America’s energy use and improve its health care system. It’s obsessively polling voters, boasting of a higher favorability rating than Congress. It’s even touting an “economic stimulus plan for American shoppers” in the form of steep price cuts made last week. (Four 12-packs of Pepsi? $10.)

That last one may be slightly tongue in cheek — even discount retailers have a sense of humor — but the bigger message is not: after years of running afoul of the United States government on labor and environmental issues, Wal-Mart now aspires to be like the government, bursting through political logjams and offering big-picture solutions to intractable problems.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather vote for any of the candidates than to leave it to Wal-Mart to solve our societal problems — given how many problems they’ve caused in the first place. So even though you’d probably prefer to tune out at this point — keep paying attention to what the candidates are saying, and listen for how they plan to solve workplace issues. Because chances are, you’ll be working for the next four years, and the president’s views will matter.

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