Archives About Staff BagNews is dedicated to visual politics, media literacy and the analysis of news images.
July 6, 2006

Getting Played?

Portable-White

This billboard, touting the new white Sony PSP (Playstation Player), was recently launched in Amsterdam.

Other sites that have profiled this ad (example 1, 2) ask the question: Is it racist?

Perhaps the real question, though, is:  Are we being set up?

Isn’t “buzz marketing” supposed to be provocative enough to shake things up, but not past the point where the ad/message/image loses all ambiguity?  To the extent the ad attracts the attention of sites like this — whatever our determination about the image — isn’t that “a win” for the corporation, and the campaign?

More shots from the series here, here and here.



(hat tip: acm. images via joystiq.com)

  • rudy

    Yeah, right, I guess we are being set-up for corporate marketing. But gee whiz, what if the images were portrayed as the opposite: a taller, leaner, more viscious person of colour towering over a meek, frail white woman. The response then would call for a lynching, right? Perhaps thats the way whites instinctively feel now, persecuted – and christian. Today, I guess this response calls for a bombing – a good white, christian cleansing of anything brown or black. Watchout Central and South America, watch out middle East, the superpower is going to rape your daughters and put a bomb on your house. Peace out.

  • ummabdulla

    “watch out middle East, the superpower is going to rape your daughters and put a bomb on your house.”
    Is going to? Like they’re not already doing it?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/kkolk8/ Siberian

    Rudy, you mean if it was the opposite like this image from the same campaign:
    http://www.joystiq.com/media/2006/07/sony_whiteiscoming_web_3a.jpg
    I think this one ad in many is being singled out.

  • readytoblowagasket

    How can “I hate you for making me love you now kiss me!” be racist? That doesn’t have anything to do with race.

  • Lighkeeper

    North Americans in particular are very hung up on political correctness, as if making things appear as you want to will simply change the way they really are in reality.
    Hence, the outraged and outrageous accusations of “racism” being flung here. This is an ad. We know its an ad. We should also know that Sony knows its an ad. Then, we should realize that the only reason Sony picked these ads was because they knew how NAs would react to these ads. And so finally, we have more publicity for the ad.
    It’s all about the ad, people. All about the ad.

  • lib4

    Is it racist…of course it is…
    If Trojan condoms showed a woman getting raped
    and then claimed it was okay because the rapist used their condoms
    do you think thats okay….???that creates buzzz…doesnt it????
    the problem with the ad is the violent pose of the white woman
    and the line that “white is coming”
    the other two pictures would have made the same provocative point without the blatant racist overtones…..

  • http://www.reciprocity-failure.com Stan Banos

    Racially provocative? Absolutely. Racist? Let’s see if the last photo in the series gets as much hype and exposure…

  • http://www.blogatha.blogspot.com/ Karen

    I can’t be too articulate about this one. I’m just left with “icky” and “vacuous.” I’m sure it’s planned but it’s very interesting how the black character has little detail to its image with the exception of the white cigarette hanging out of her/his mouth.
    I also don’t get the “I hate you for making me kiss you” remark above.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sravana/ sravana

    First: in the above pic, I didn’t even SEE the black woman at first – I thought the white girl was holding something like an iPod for a second. Then I thought, WTF? Living in Texas, where racism is a given, I cannot IMAGINE someone trying to sell something with that image.
    Second: what’s with the 80 hairstyle? That blonde mane piled up to kingdom come? yeech.
    Third: reminicent of hot girl-on-girl action, especially the other linked photos.
    Racist? yes, without a doubt. Sexist? That, too. Can you imagine if it was with MEN, instead of women? Xtians would be *all* *over* the ad.
    I think this is the first time I’ve commented, but I’m a long time reader. Bag, you rock!

  • http://justbetweenstrangers.blogspot.com/ acm

    what does anybody think/know about the way that races are viewed in The Netherlands? I mean, this is overtly racial (in a way that people painted pure white and black wouldn’t be), and we have one whole set of responses to race-charged images, but what about over there? is it more about foreignness and less about views of a former slave class? or, conversely, does it conjur a whole imperialist past (all the stronger for the modern dress/style of the white woman and the relatively plain/primitive dress of the black women), which might carry both proud and shameful connotations?
    all very interesting, but I just can’t see how this could sell their product, buzz or not. I find it a total turn-off (morally and politically, not sexually)!

  • jtfromBC

    “You’ve come a long way, baby”
    http://tobaccodocuments.org/ads_pm/2058500255.html?ocr_position=hide_ocr
    Jump to Images – scroll down

  • limapup

    We have a long way to go yet until the “battle” of the races becomes a thing of the past – we are so accutely aware of anything that remotely conveys any power struggle, especially when it involves race. I do think that the “wording” means much more than the image. When will humanity move forward.

  • Shaun

    I find the adds very racist. But, as mentioned above, since the point is to sell playstations, not provoke race war, you could argue about it forever, which is just the point; it’s racism without the racist agenda. But that might be even more disgusting…
    As for the third image, some people seem to think it redeems the series since the black girl is on top. I disagree: the image of the white figure being opressed by the black one is even more provocative, like war propaghanda. The images force you to identify with the white figure: she’s contrasted against the background, dressed in ‘modern’ attire (vs. the old-fashioned black caricature), etc. That’s not how you sell playstations to minorities…
    Overall, the adds have a distinctly Hegelian, ’slave-master’ thing going on, which is some pretty primordial, viscious stuff. That the two figures are female only means this dynamic is being contexualized in a kinky S&M format as opposed to one of explicit (male) violence…It’s as if it says: “its okay because they’re just women”…so its sexist too (but I guess that’s obvious).

  • ummabdulla

    Sravana, I didn’t see the black person in the first picture either. I guess I was looking at the white woman, and then my eyes were drawn to the text. Then I looked at the pictures, and when I came back to this one, the black person in the center was very obvious.
    I find it sexist, too, but European ads routinely use women’s bodies to sell everything, so that’s nothing new; in fact, this woman’s more dressed than usual.
    The only issue I’m familiar with in the Netherlands is that the government recently resigned over the Somali-born lawmaker Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who lied to get asylum years ago; the Minister in charge of Immigration (a white woman and friend of hers) planned to revoke her citizenship in accordance with her well-known policy. Hirsi Ali is very popular, though, as one who could always be counted on to bash Islam, so there was outrage and “Iron Rita” had to back down and let her keep her citizenship (she “found a loophole”, but the whole thing caused the collapse of the government.

  • readytoblowagasket

    I’m not a gamer, but isn’t gaming about fantasy? These are two characters — one black, the other white — in a fantasy. I’m no fantasy expert either, but I know that fantasy historically uses the colors black (the Dark Prince) and white (the White Knight) to tell a tale.
    In this PlayStation story, the black character is calmly standing her ground in this mysterious confrontation. She is not fearful, she is not threatened. In fact, she looks defiant. This character is not going to be raped (missing emotion: fear), she can apparently defend herself if need be. She is strong, evident by her pose, her gaze, her jet-black skin color. Also, she is androgynous, not stereotypically female, not stereotypically weak (I thought she was a man at first). She’s got to have some power to be able to stand up to the white character.
    The white character is pissed off (for whatever reason), threatening the black character with a fierce, intense *expression.* However, her left hand is open, not closed into a fist. Though it’s open, it’s not drawn back as if to slap the black character, either, it’s at her side in a weird gesture, as if in frustration. She is holding the black character’s face, not squeezing it in a show of force, not flexing her puny arm muscle. She is wearing sexy clothes that reveal her bare neck, chest, breast, and belly. Her jacket makes her look busty, and her satin pants show the bulge of hip/thigh. These are the clues to what is going on.
    Just because the fantasy or ambiguous relationship between two females makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean this is racist or a rape scene. I do think the ad team did a great job depicting a lesbian fantasy power struggle disguised as a racial confrontation. Bravo to them for getting away with it. They knew we’d fall for the race card.
    If you really study the image, it looks like the black character actually has the upper hand. Bravo again to the ad team for that choice.

  • margaret

    These images are sick. And the people who thought them up should not be paid for such corrupt imagination. Humanity is a meaningless term in a world which only cares about product and selling it any way the corporation can. Personally, I won’t ever buy another thing made by Sony, as a result.

  • Steve Talbert

    I think the ad needs the other 2 pictures to make sense. When you see all 3, I think it’s a great ad. I think people who don’t like it probably aren’t gamers. They should look at the amount of violence and conflict in the games. This ad will probably appeal to their target market. Great ad, then.
    That said, I am not a gamer and looking at this ad would make me NOT buy whatever that product is. (So they haven’t lost a customer and probably don’t care about what I think). At first, though, I was thinking Calvin Klein.
    Narrow channel marketing exposed to the masses is really going to flip a lot of people’s heads. People are strange in general. This issue even comes up in everyday things such as gay marriage. You are either for it, against it, or don’t care. The people that are for it want others to accept it. The people against it want gays to disappear, and the others don’t care. Same here and with more and more issues today. We are going to get many more of these instances as the world and cultures continue to collide and merge.

  • Cactus

    My first impression, upon seeing the series of ads, was that it’s a caricature of the old French sailor-bar routine where the couple, while dancing, act out their fights and loves and wind up kissing (or whatever). Gilda Radner and Steve Martin did a take-off on the early SNL; they are both white, but it IS MSTV. And the last (?) in the series does show the black man subduing the white woman. I doubt they would have dared publish that one in the U.S.
    Back when I worked in advertising, it was well known that a TV ad that irritated the viewer was more effective than a nice, even funny, ad. Today, I think it is probably all about the ‘buzz’ they can get off of it. Reference the ‘heroin models’ in mags like “VanityFair” for…..was it Hilfiger? That buzz lasted for months and I’m pretty sure it was effective among the 20-somethings.
    Perhaps they have already achieved their goal by posting it in liberal Amsterdam, knowing that it would get coverage in the gaming blogosphere and from there wide distribution among the other bloggers and that is their target audience…….computer savvy young men. Why would they waste their money by paying for ads in the NYT or GQ? One can see this ploy as totally cynical in that it is up front on a billboard in a European country where the black/white racism is much less a factor than it is in the U.S. The cynicism is in their knowing that it would become a hot topic in the blogosphere in THIS country.
    Also, some of the posters here saw the black figure as a woman. Upon reexamination, the black figure is so ambiguous as to be asexual, except for the final frame. I’m still not sure but the clues (short hair, ‘military’ style shirt, final domination) all point to a male. However, if it IS two women, then we have another taboo (lesbianism) for the population at large, and a titillation for the young men who are, presumably, their target audience.
    Another point is, when it comes to plastic, what’s the difference between black or white? Could it be that there is NO difference, but sales are off and they don’t have the newest version ready so they hype a different color just because they have nothing else?
    Sorry to be so long-winded, but this one has many facets.
    I miss asta.
    rtbag, good analysis of the gaming aspects. I totally missed that.

  • Cactus

    Thanks, Steve, it was Calvin Klein, not Hilfiger, in VF ads.

  • readytoblowagasket

    The Wicked Witch of the West made those splayed-finger hand gestures:
    http://tinyurl.com/qmw45
    http://tinyurl.com/ngy7l
    http://tinyurl.com/qqkgy
    http://tinyurl.com/ckrce
    Which means the white character is a witch.
    Can’t say if the black character is a witch, a sorceress, a queen, a princess, a warrior, or an android, but she’s sure not Dorothy or Glinda.

  • http://www.keirneuringer.blogspot.com Keir

    I actually wanted to send the Bag this image just after I saw it here in The Hague, but assumed its European focus might not be interesting; online, I couldn’t find any North American references to the “white” version of the product or the ads themselves.
    Anyway, to answer the questions:
    Is it racist? Yes. Racist, perverse, vulgar, disgusting, irresponsible, wrong.
    Are we being set up? I don’t like this question. Should our opposition be silent? To draw an uneasy parallel: does the widespread opposition to the war on Iraq here dignify that crime? The ads should be torn down—as the war should cease—and the companies that made and paid for them should be shamed and dismantled. (Dismantled, yes, because the product being advertised with so much violence is a product centered around violence.)

  • Otter

    Not sure if anyone said this, but PSP stands for Playstation Portable, not Playstation Player.

  • itwasntme

    I am repulsed to see two people being mean to each other, period. I’m stuffed full with hate images, words, actions, everything.
    Therefore, it’s a hateful ad. Whether it is racist or not is secondary to me.

  • weisseharre

    eyepatchytanz

  • USGuyInMtl

    If the adds are really aimed at the Dutch, why are they in English?

  • Stacia

    The ads really need to be seen all together to create the proper context. I think the text on the featured ad above, though, is what makes the photo racist. It seems to imply that the new Playstation brand name is “White”, so the photo of the white lady overtaking the black lady comes across as a representation of “White” beating the competition. Honestly, without the text I probably would have thought the photo was tasteless but not necessarily full-on racist.
    Ultimately I wonder if this isn’t just a poorly thought-out way of representing fantasy characters fighting each other. Someone decided to make a “white” character and a “black” character in the standard fantasy RPG good-and-evil way but took it too far, intentionally or not.

  • http://www.keirneuringer.blogspot.com Keir

    USGuy, many ads in Europe, aimed at Europeans whose first language is not necessarily English, are themselves in English.
    Stacia (and others)—the ads do not need to be taken together to create “proper” context. The main image is the most widely featured here in The Netherlands, in fact the only one of the group I’ve seen around here (and I’ve seen it a lot).

  • http://web.media.mit.edu/~nvawter noah

    The picture was taken on the coast of Mauritania
    in 1800. It captures whites capturing slaves from Africa.
    The monochromatic renderings invoke the statue of liberty. (as well, the attention paid to cloth and high-rise hair). W/r/t one hand, she’s put the wisdom side (book) down for a moment and with the power hand (prev. holding a torch), she’s committing aggression.
    Its utter simplicity (black vs. white + sex + violence) is maximally ambiguous and sloppy. It’s hardly limited to the PSP.
    Imagine: “Eternal Terrorist War is coming.” Pepsi or Sprite. It doesn’t matter which one you buy – we’ll make money on both sides – just buy one and we’ll provide you with a sexy and violent eyeful.
    See also: “Do you buy this because it’s less filling, or because it tastes great?” Famously parodied by Dave Foster “I like yellow gin because it’s dirt cheap. No, I like it because it fries your mind!”
    Finally: “We fight each other and the police state wins” -Jello Biafra

  • ummabdulla

    Sony has pulled the ad, but they certainly got enough publicity out of it first.

Refresh Archives

Random Notes