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  A Q&A With Michelle Singletary

Tuesday, March 9, 1999

Michelle Singletary

My jaw dropped when I saw the Toyota Corolla ad on the back cover of the January issue of Jet magazine, a publication aimed at black readers.

The ad read: "Unlike your last BOYFRIEND, it goes to work IN THE MORNING." Say what? Was Toyota implying that it has a car that is more reliable and dependable than black men? Was that supposed to be funny? If so, the humor was lost on me.

For background, read my latest column and browse an archive of my past columns.

Rockville, MD: Did Jet offer any explanation as to why it ran the ad? As an African-American magazine, it should be most attuned to what would or wouldn't be considered offensive within its community. I agree big corporations and advertising firms are generally unable to accurately gauge minority groups' "hot buttons". That is why I think the ethnic publications should take the lead in educating the companies. It's good business practice for all parties.

Michelle Singletary: Welcome to another discussion. First let me say I hope all of you online with me today have had a safe trip to your office or home. The weather out here is frightful!

Now let's talk race.

The only explanation Jet magazine editors offered was that the ad was mistakenly placed in their publication. They claim their normal system of screening such ads failed. Personally, I think the explanation is hogwash and they certainly deserve some of the blame for allowing the ad to be printed. In many respects if we (meaning blacks) expect white-owned companies to adhere to a certain standard and not offend us then our businesses should be extra careful to do the same. Otherwise, I say we take our dollars elsewhere - to white or black magazines - that do care enough to reject or screen such ads.

Baltimore, MD: Women of all colors can relate to supporting a man who will not work. Don't be so quick to apply the race issue to everything. Jet's advertising editor/standards committee obviously understood. But to be truthful, why is the line "you gotta have a J O B if you wanna be with me" oft quoted by black women?

Michelle Singletary: Frankly, if I were a man - black or white - I would be offended at all the male bashing that is allowed in TV commercials and print ads. Some of my best friends are men and every single one of them works hard and are good fathers. I don't find anything funny about suggesting that men can't be depended on to work or take care of their families.

And, women often quote that "you gotta have a J O B" line because they want a man with a job or at least looking hard for one. I don't happen to think there is anything wrong with that, do you?

Centreville VA: I agree with the bad taste of the Toyota ad. Question: In commercials targeting all audiences, should minorities be represented as a percentage of the population, i.e. blacks and Hispanics roughly 10% each? I do see many more minorities nowadays.

Michelle Singletary: I like the fact that companies are finally recognizing that minorities have money and should be catered to. I don't mind seeing ads with all white people in them as long as once in a while -heck more than once in a while- companies, ad agencies acknowledge that we live in America too. I want my son and daughter to see themselves reflected in the ads, commercials, TV shows, models, doctors etc. depicted in the media. I don't think companies have to try and create a little melting pot in each ad but instead strive to represent all of America throughout their ad campaign for a car or anything else.

Tysons Corner, VA: Hey, lighten up!!! The ad was merely suggesting that you (the woman) go to work in the morning while the boyfriend goes to work in the afternoon or evening, the point being that your boyfriend has a different schedule than you do, obviously impacting your relationship. It's got nothing to do with reliability or dependability.

Michelle Singletary: Now by lighten up do you mean I should try to be more white? Cuz I take offense at that.

Just kidding.

Hey, they specifically joked in the Toyota ad that they had a car that might be more dependable than someone's boyfriend.

Centreville, VA: Here's another kind of ad that bothers me. The kind that stereotypes in order to increase a firm's credibility of ethnicity. As someone with Italian family, I give you the Olive Garden restaurant as an example. Their ads are so insulting in their stereotype of Italians, I will NEVER eat there. But you know what? Those ads aren't for me. They're for non-Italians who stereotype us themselves. They're saying, "here, look at us, we're really Italian just like you expect Italians to be!" (I think they know that most Italians find their food bland and overly Americanized by our standards, so they probably don't care if they insult us).

Sensitivity training for all ad execs!!

Michelle Singletary: I say, "amen," to that. In reporting this column I talked to ad executives and experts in marketing and many said that to catch people's attention these days many companies are pushing the envelope trying to be funny or say provocative. The problem is they often fall back on old stereotypes that I don't find so entertaining. And, they shouldn't either. An earlier person suggested that I lighten up. But it's the little infractions the accepted, often laughed at stereotypes that leads to so many misunderstandings and the reason why we are still hotly debating race in this country.

Wow. Didn't mean to be that heavy.

Laurel Maryland: Blacks should also boycott Jet Magazine for printing such a racist ad. They should have know that such an ad would spark resentment among blacks. But what can you expect, sometimes when blacks become wealthy, they can become as insensitive as a Klan member.

Michelle Singletary: While I certainly agree that as consumers we should make our views known by taking our money elsewhere I don't think this offense merits a boycott. Both Jet and Toyota said they were sorry. Should we let them off the hook that easy? Hell no. But I do believe that people and companies should get a chance to correct their mistakes. Instead of always hammering the companies I think we should demand proof that they are reforming their ways. We should be demanding that Toyota use more minority ad agencies, hire more minorities on their staff and question their creative process to begin with to make sure this doesn't happen again. As I said in the column if a company is going to try and market to minorities they had better get it right - the first time.

Washington, DC: You dodged the question. Why are you so sure the ad was intended to make a statement about black men? Did the ad run only in Jet, or was it other magazines, too?

Michelle Singletary: It helps if you read the column before the online discussion. Next time do your homework before coming to class (smile).

Anyway, as I reported the ad ONLY managed to get into Jet. Toyota executives claim that it was suppose to run in other female-targeted magazines such as Good Housekeeping. But somehow, they CLAIM because of a "clerical error" the ad was only printed in Jet. Doesn't matter anyway. Even it had been placed in Good Housekeeping or People I - a black woman with a fair amount of humor - found it offensive. Did you hear? There is a stereotype circulating that black men aren't dependable. The ad in many ways played on that in an effort to be funny. It wasn't. Now are you up to speed? We are about halfway through today's live discussion with Michelle Singletary. We are still accepting your questions and comments.

Ft. Washington, Md.: The Toyota ad to me means a lot of things, but the most telling is the fact that this was obviously not created by African Americans and not run past African Americans for screen testing. We as an African American community do not demand business be done amongst our communities, whether it be sports agents, doctors, lawyers or whatever. And then we get upset when Jet Magazine let us down. That's right, Jet should demand a certain amount of minority advertising. If it did, this wouldn't have happened.

Michelle Singletary: In my own personal life I have made a commitment to do business with black businesses. When my husband and I decided to have a deck built we made sure to get three bids and required of ourselves to include a black contractor. We told the black contractor that we preferred to give him the business - got to support the brothers and keep some of our dollars in our community. However, we held that black contractor up to the same standards as the white contractors. His bid came in lower with a lot of extra features. The bottom line, is I don't mind spending my money with white, black, Hispanic, Asian or any other kind of businessman or woman. I do, however try to throw my dollars behind black companies. I do expect our black businesses, such as Jet to project a fair image of my community one that might not be projected by white companies.

Bethesda, MD: It is OK to get heavy - and it is easy to say lighten up if you are white (as I am). What a lot of whites don't understand is the privilege in not having to worry about racist ads like these. So of course, as an African-American, you take offense Michelle. And so should we all. Listen up Toyota - and Saatchi and Saatchi. These are the messages that enter our minds - and play out every day in other ways.

Michelle Singletary: Preach, my sister or brother. Far be it for me to say let's not try to be funny. But so many people are down on being politically correct. All we are saying in being "politically correct" is to respect people not like yourself. I'll admit that for one column I almost used the word "Dutch" as in dutch-treat or pay your way and I'll pay mine. A good friend of mine pointed out that dutch might be offensive to people of Dutch descent. I couldn't believe his objection and for what I thought was such a harmless word. But I was dead wrong and I didn't use the term in the column. As my friend pointed out there were plenty of ways to say people should pay their own way without offending someone. I got news for companies out there if you offend me, you ain't going to get my money. That's my message.

San Francisco, CA: Michelle,
While I agree with your assertion that Toyota should employ more minority agencies, that tactic in itself (as you probably realize) needs some refinement.
The agency needs to have some sense of ethnic identity; simply being black will not provide that. They need to find an agency that is aware of not only blacks, but the spiritual components of what Black people need reflected back at themselves. Some humor, some enlightenment. All simultaneously.

Michelle Singletary: I certainly can't argue with you on this point. More companies could benefit from your wisdom.

Exiled Washingtonian: How do you know that the Toyota ad in question was not created by a black ad person or firm? I also think that you should lighten up. I really do not understand why you would take the ad so personally if the situation in question does not apply to you. As for the Olive Garden commercial, I saw it the other day and thought it was amusing because several Italians I know say the food is less than great.

Michelle Singletary: What's with these lighten up comments. I like my color just fine.

And, I've been know to be have a pretty good sense of humor.
The Toyota ad was not funny and it was not created by a black person or black ad firm. But even if it were, still doesn't mean it wouldn't be offensive. Do you really think black people can't offend each other? Have you ever seen HBO's Def Comedy Jam in which so many black comedians offensively referred to our blacks that I stopped watching the show. And you don't have to be black or Italian to be offended by racism when you see it.

Tysons Corner: I think you're extrapolating too much about the ad being targeted for black women and black men being the object of ridicule. You're assuming because it ran in Jet, it was created to target blacks. Even if it was, you're then assuming the creator had a negative image in mind and intended the reader to infer that from the ad. I think the word "dependable" in the ad was referring to the man being home in the afternoon or evening when the woman was home (some men do have afternoon/evening jobs - just like women), and not referring to any ability to provide or be a good guy. Methinks you doth protest too much.

Michelle Singletary: Methinks you been living in a cave away from our civilized world. Hello, where have you been the last 30 or 40 years? It doesn't matter if they were targeting dogs. The ad ran in a black magazine. Blacks men have continued to be stereotyped as jobless thugs. If you intend to throw a rock into a stream and instead hit my head, do you think I'm not going to be hurt? I'm sure the person who came up with the team name for the Washington football team didn't mean to be offensive but REDSKINS is an offensive name.

Washington, DC: Sorry, I had not read your column -- I didn't know it was required reading. But I am now "up to speed." I agree that publication of the ad only in Jet is rather suspicious. That leaves me wondering why you say it "doesn't matter" if the ad had been published in People magazine too. If the ad were aimed at a general circulation audience, there would be no racial issue. So why do you say it "doesn't matter"? Any ad that pokes fun at unreliable men is offensive?

Michelle Singletary: Perception, perception, perception. It all comes down to perception.

Arlington VA: What are we talking about when we say "white" companies anyhow? Is Toyota a "white" company? Race will always be an issue so long as we continue to make it one and to shove it down each other's throats. I'm tired of everything being black vs white - if Toyota ran an ad that offended you, let's at least not blame it on the fact that Toyota is "white".

Michelle Singletary: And what should we blame it on? Martians? The ad company and executives that created the ad campaign for Toyota are white. They have a different cultural upbringing which may make them less sensitive to issues that concern blacks. I certainly hope you aren't suggesting that we should continue to allow such ads to be presented to us because frankly I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!

Gaithersburg, Md: Michelle, I read your column as I always do on Sundays. I really think that you are looking too hard to find 'race' where it really is not. I do not read Jet magazine, yet I saw the ad that you refer to in another mainstream magazine (can't remember which one) several months ago. It seemed to apply to anyone who has to support someone who doesn't reliably 'start' in the morning. For example, my stepson. Keep up the good reporting, just don't see what is not there.

Michelle Singletary: You see somebody reads the column.

From what I learned from my reporting this particular ad did not run anywhere else. And, I see just fine. Saw something that made me mad and wrote about it. Just trying to en"LIGHTEN" you folks.

Well, that's it for the day. As always it was a pleasure. Have a wonderful day and be careful out there.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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