Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Cultural Stereotypes - Italian Style!

Anthony Crupi is a senior editor of Mediaweek and one of my favorite columnists.

His weekly column covers all manner of advertising-related topics and alway seem to connect with the human elements of advertising.

Crupi's irreverent tone, off-beat observations (how many columnists drop 15th century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch's name?) and self-depreciating style offer insightful looks at, and into the world of advertising; specifically cable TV.

I earned myself some looks from depressed-looking early morning Manhattan commuters when I laughed out loud while riding the packed downtown "B" train on way to work as I read his November 4, 2008 column entitled, "Si, perfetto".

In an effort to illustrate the absurd nature of television content, Crupi describes a thirty-second television commercial for Barilla Plus pasta that that sets a new standard for the use of totally inauthentic ethnic stereotyped characters to pitch product.

Are ANY of those people even partially Italian?

I've been making the same observations about warped ethnic stereotypes in commercials for years. My brother and I used to laugh at the Popeye's and Kentucky Fried Chicken commercials which were replete with tables full of grinning black people sucking down artery-clogging pieces of fried chicken with fatty side dishes, licking their lips to a gospel-like soundtrack.

One of my absolute favorites was an Olive Garden commercial with the usual 15-person Italian-American family sitting round a table. The commercial began with a guy in an absurd dilemma that began something like:

"Mama was in town from the old country and the whole family
was gathered to eat; but I didn't have enough room to cook for
everyone and Mama is so particular about the food!"

Cut to: Closeup of Italian Grandmother type in black dress wringing her hands and looking about the kitchen in terror.
"My sister said, Let's take her to Olive Garden'"

You can picture the rest, "Mama" spooning up watery-flavorless sauce over dead-looking pasta and cardboard-like bread and smiling warmly at the members of her Italian family as guys make kissing sounds and expressive hand gestures amidst the faux-Italian decorations of their local Olive Garden.

I mean, I'm not even Italian and I was offended by it! But it was so funny I literally laughed myself silly every time it came on.

Advertisers have seconds to draw an audience into a commercial and I suppose appealing to the one-dimensional assumptions of ethnic characteristics, physical traits and racial stereotypes is just their way of grabbing our attention.

This isn't to say I haven't enjoyed a meal or two at Olive Garden before. And I guess there are worse things than moderately-priced family-style Italian restaurants located in US strip-malls; but do they have to skewer a rich cultural tradition to promote it?

check out this Olive Garden commercial spoof!

No comments: